Hello and welcome back to another post here at Life of Heritage Corner! I’m here with another post in my War Between the States Soldier Life series, this time focusing on the Corporal! This series is non-biased, so no matter what you believe about the war, you can learn something here!
Now before we get started, I shall give you my disclaimer: I am not an expert. These posts are merely the results of my personal research for my books, The Battle for Heritage Series. I try to write posts in this series that I would love to have read when I was searching books and websites for this information! So, if you have been looking for a post of this nature for your research, you’re welcome 😉 (Click here for episode 6: The Private or go to my Looking for Something? page for a full list of posts in this series.)
The corporal’s duties are pretty basic for the most part. They are in charge of the private soldiers. They oversee small details of camp life, following the orders of the sergeant. And, if the sergeant is gone, well, guess who’s in charge, boys? Often, corporals are disliked by the men because they can be overzealous to do a good job and stay on the sergeant’s good side. Plus, with their knowledge of the sergeant’s duties, they can come across as know-it-alls.
A Corporal is a non-commissioned officer. Which simply means, he’s in charge, you obey him. Period. But—you do not salute him, and you do not call him sir. He is not usually allowed to confine a soldier to his quarters or to the guard house, though. Unless someone has given him permission to do so.
I will cut them some slack, though…the higher-ranking men could be hard on them. They were expected to be the epitome of neatness and cleanliness in the way they dressed and cared for their equipment, an example for the private to follow. And a corporal could get in more trouble if he didn’t hold up to that standard. With position comes stiffer consequences. If a higher-ranking soldier called for the men to fall in, the corporal should be the first to arrive. And their quarters should always be in top notch condition.
They had to be able to instruct recruits in basic military actions and tactics. And if you’re going out into the field, guess who you get your rations from? Better stay on his good side!
And the pinnacle of his job…the Corporal of the Guard. We’ll get into the particulars of this in a minute, but not only did he have to know how to perform this duty, but he also had to be able to instruct others in carrying it out…flawlessly.
The Corporal of the Guard is the changing out of the sentries (to the best of my understanding). Three corporals are assigned to three groups of men, called reliefs. Each corporal marches their relief to their post for guard duty, changes them out with the last group of guards, then marches the old group back to camp. He is responsible for keeping up with the names of the men and that they are present and accounted for at their posts and when their shift ends. There’s a whole list of things the soldiers need to say and do as the exchange is taking place, but I’ll spare you the details.
After posting the sentries, the corporal must revisit the posts by daylight to make sure they understand their day-orders. This is to be repeated at night, as the orders are different. The corporal is held responsible by the officer of the day to make sure that the sentries are instructed correctly.
And when on guard duty, the corporal must keep in mind that they are only to take orders from the commanding officer, officer of the day and the officers and non-commissioned officers of the guard…which might not be his usual commanders. Now, try to keep that all straight when in a high-stress position!
They also have the pleasure of rounding up soldiers who have gone AWOL. Fun stuff!
Corporals were also, typically, in charge of fatigue duty. This is basically any job a soldier could be required to do where his weapon is not needed. For example, road work, building field placements (barriers and trenches) rifle pits, barricades (making or removing), foraging for food, etc.
And this is just for the Infantry Corporal! Forgive me, I’ll let you look up the rules for Cavalry and Artillery Corporals for yourself. 😉
So, there you have it, the basic overview of a Corporal’s duties in the 1860s! Next time you read a book with an obnoxious corporal, remember this post and try to grant him some grace. He’s got a tough life, lol!
Until Next Time,
Christian. American. Southern. Author.