The winter months often meant a break in the military campaigns of the war and the killing, and as the winter of 1863 approached, many of the soldiers in the Army of the Potomac expected a respite, especially after the carnage of Fredericksburg. In the fi ve weeks after the battle, they found themselves in Falmouth, Virginia, along the northern shore of the Rappahannock River, enduring frigid temperatures with inadequate supplies. One Wisconsin officer compared the encampment to the “Valley Forge of the war.” Elisha Hunt Rhodes, the Rhode Island enlistee, forced himself to make an entry in his diary. “Th is morning we found ourselves covered with snow that had fallen during the night. It is too cold to write. How I would like to have some of those ‘On to Richmond’ fellows out here with us in the snow.”
Soldiers’ thoughts turned to grim survival. “The phrensy of soldiers rushing during an engagement to glory or death has, as our boys amusingly affirm, been played out,” wrote one observant chaplain. Confidence in their leadership had evaporated. One Massachusetts soldier concluded: “Our poppycorn generals kill men as Herod killed the innocents.” The soldiers swarmed into the forests and felled trees to make homes warmer than any tent. Soon they’d built a small city made of logs and canvas arranged by regiments. New recruits put on all their clothes, including their overcoats, before bed. But veterans would take off their clothes and use them as blankets, which they were convinced kept them warmer.
An inspector from the Sanitary Commission reported that the winter quarters were “littered with refuse, food and other rubbish, sometimes in an offensive state of decomposition. . . .” Diseases such as scurvy, dysentery, typhoid, diphtheria, and pneumonia would kill two soldiers to every one downed on the battlefield. “One of the wonders of these times was the army cough . . .” one Union soldier recounted later. “[It] would break out . . . when the men awoke, and it is almost a literal fact that when one hundred thousand men began to stir at reveille, the sound of their coughing would drown that of the beating drums.”