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Raising an Army
"Red snow fell near Iowa City,” reported the Des Moines Sunday Register on March 5, 1861. Editor George Mills hastened to explain that the color was caused by fine flakes of reddish clay mixed with the precipitation. Wind had swept dust into the atmosphere far to the west, providing the residents of eastern Iowa with a bit of unusual late-winter color. It was a simple scientific explanation, easily understood by modern Americans in this enlightened second half of the nineteenth century. Yet as editor Mills observed, many Iowans could hardly help wondering whether the eerie reddish cast of their normally snow-whitened plains was not some vague but appalling portent of terrible things to come. It may well have occurred to some Hawkeyes that the next winter’s snows might be reddened by the bloodshed of civil strife. Americans elsewhere would have asked themselves the same question.
On the same day the red snow fell in Iowa, Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as president of a country that was tearing itself apart. The issue of slavery had festered between North and South for two generations, and for many people in Iowa, as in the other Midwestern states, the tension in Washington, D.C., was a matter of great concern.
In response to Lincoln’s election, on December 20, 1860, South Carolina declared itself no longer a part of the United States. On January 9, Mississippi followed. Florida went on January 10, and the next day it was Alabama. Other Deep South states followed throughout the month. On February 1, Texas became the seventh state to declare itself out of the Union. Later that month, representatives of the rebellious states met in Montgomery, Alabama, organized a government, styled themselves “the Confederate States of America,” and elected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as their president. By March 4, when Lincoln was inaugurated and the red snow fell in Iowa, the dismemberment of the world’s only great republic and the establishment of a slaveholders’ regime in the Deep South seemed to be faits accomplis.
Throughout the winter, the fire-eaters in the Southern states had spoken of seceding peacefully if possible, violently if necessary, and Southern military preparations had gone on apace. Northerners watched uneasily. The news they read daily in the papers seemed no more credible than the freak of nature that had brought red-tinged snow to Iowa City on the day of Lincoln’s inauguration.
Here and there across the North, men began to think of making military preparations of their own. Some towns organized volunteer companies. In January, brothers and coeditors of the Cedar Falls Gazette, Henry and George Perkins, began encouraging the formation of such a group in their Iowa town. “We have the material here from which to form a ‘crack corps,’ which, if properly organized and equipped, would be of great advantage to us on our gala days and public occasions,” opined the Gazette, “and who knows but in these troublesome times might be the means of preserving the country from ruin and give some of the members an opportunity to cover themselves with immortal glory.” By the following month, forty men had formed themselves into the “Pioneer Greys,” so named after the common color of militia uniforms at the time. They drilled diligently and were soon gaining additional recruits. Similar companies sprang up elsewhere. Peoria, Illinois, had four: the Peoria Guards, Peoria Rifles, Emmett Guards, and National Blues.
Like the first jarring peal of a prairie thunderstorm came the news in mid-April that Confederate forces ringing the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, had opened fire on the United States flag and garrison at Fort Sumter in the predawn hours of April 12. Thirty-four hours later, the fort surrendered. On April 15, President Lincoln, following the example of George Washington in the days of the Whiskey Rebellion, called upon the states to provide militia for ninety days of Federal service—75,000 of them—in order to put down the rebellion.
All across the North, thousands of men scarcely waited for Lincoln’s call for troops. John L. Maxwell was behind the plow preparing his fields for spring planting when he heard the news of Fort Sumter. He put away the plow and horses, and set out for nearby Canton, Illinois, to join what was to become Company H of the 17th Illinois Regiment. George O. Smith was a student in the city schools of Monmouth, Illinois. Within the week, he had enlisted and, with several other youths, was eagerly working to organize a company. They too would end up in the 17th Illinois. Nearby Peoria, where the 17th would muster, got the news of Fort Sumter on April 13 and went into an uproar. Flags appeared all over town, including at the armories of Peoria’s four volunteer companies, now busily preparing to take the field. The enrollment of additional troops began that very evening.
On April 15 in the Illinois capital, the Springfield Grays, who had the advantage of proximity, became the first company to formally offer its services to the state. The company became part of the state’s first regiment for the war, numbered the 7th Illinois out of respect for the six state regiments that had served in the Mexican War. Within nine days, the Springfield Grays had been joined by companies from all over the state in an encampment named Camp Yates in honor of Illinois’s governor.
Enthusiasm ran high. Chicago seethed with outrage at the Confederate attack. Thousands of men volunteered to go and fight for the Union. Among them were the Highland Guards, a company of ethnic Scots, making a striking appearance in their Scottish caps. Their captain, John McArthur, a thirty-four-year-old Scottish-born blacksmith and successful proprietor of Chicago’s Excelsior Ironworks, won election as colonel of the 12th Illinois Regiment.
Also joining the 12th Illinois was a company from the lead-mining town of Galena, in the far northwest corner of the state. The citizens of Galena held a mass meeting on April 16 to discuss news of the Southern attack. Mayor Robert Brand presided but promptly set the assembly in an uproar when he “gave expression to antiwar sentiments and favored compromise and peace,” as an eyewitness recalled. When the tumult subsided, a succession of more patriotic citizens made impassioned speeches pleading for manly resistance to Southern aggression. One of the speakers was a consumptive-looking lawyer named John A. Rawlins. Another was local U.S. congressman Elihu B. Washburne, who concluded by exhorting his fellow citizens to raise two companies of volunteers for the war. “The meeting adjourned with the wildest enthusiasm and cheers for the Union.”
Two days later, an even larger meeting convened at the courthouse in Galena, this time explicitly for the purpose of raising troops. Washburne suggested that the appropriate chairman for this meeting would be a quiet-spoken local leather-goods clerk who was a genuine West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War. Ulysses S. Grant—“Sam” to his friends—had made captain in the Regular Army but had had to leave the service in the early fifties because of an incident with alcohol. He had certainly seemed sober and reliable enough during the eighteen months he had lived in Galena, clerking at his father’s leather-goods store. The assembly elected him to the chair, which Grant took over with some embarrassment and a brief statement of the meeting’s purpose. No matter—Washburne and Rawlins could make the fiery speeches. Wealthy Galena businessman Augustus L. Chetlain chimed in, stating his own intention of going as a volunteer. A number of others stepped forward for military service that night, and in the days that followed, Grant, Chetlain, and the others canvassed the nearby towns of Jo Daviess County for more recruits. They soon had a full company, named it the Jo Daviess Guard, offered it to Gov. Richard Yates, and got orders to head for Springfield. Grant declined to serve as captain of the company. If an officer of his training and experience was of any value at all to the country, it ought to be at a higher rank. Chetlain got the slot instead, but Grant went along to Springfield to assist the company as it became part of a regimental organization.
War meetings like the one in Galena were common all across the Prairie State and its neighbors. In Ottawa, Illinois, a similar meeting resolved “that we will stand by the flag of our country in this her most trying hour, cost what it may of blood or treasure,” and likewise determined to raise troops. The first company filled up in a single day. Others followed, including one company composed entirely of men over the age of forty-five and led by a captain who had served with Winfield Scott at Lundy’s Lane during the War of 1812. To their dismay, however, they discovered that the government was not accepting enlisted recruits who were over the age of forty-five.
News of Fort Sumter reached Frankfort, Indiana, late on the afternoon of April 13, 1861. In the Clinton County courthouse, lawyer Lewis “Lew” Wallace was addressing a jury. The town’s telegraph operator entered and told the judge he had a telegram for Wallace. It was from Wallace’s friend, Indiana governor Oliver P. Morton, and read: “Sumter has been fired on. Come immediately.” With the judge’s permission, Wallace excused himself to the jury and left the case to his law partner. Then he mounted his horse and rode hard the ten miles to Colfax, where he could catch a train to Indianapolis that night. Son of a former governor of the state, Wallace had served as a second lieutenant in the Mexican War and in 1856 organized a militia company called the Montgomery (County) Guards. Now Govenor Morton made Wallace Indiana’s state adjutant general for the purpose of supervising the raising of troops.
Within days, Lincoln’s call for troops arrived, requesting six regiments from Indiana. Wallace asked if he could become colonel of one of the new regiments, and Morton agreed. Before the week was out, Wallace reported to Morton some 130 companies at Camp Morton, near Indianapolis. That was 70 more than the number required by Lincoln’s call. As was even then being done in Illinois, Morton and Wallace decided that Indiana’s regiments should begin numbering where they left off in the Mexican War, so the first Indiana regiment for the Civil War was the 6th. Wallace carefully selected the ten companies he liked best for his own regiment, the 11th.
Even out in Iowa, beyond the Mississippi River, news arrived and people reacted so quickly as to be ahead of Lincoln’s call for troops. In Keosauqua, on the Des Moines River in the southeastern part of the state, citizens suspended their ordinary business and stood around in clusters, discussing the news. They had already scheduled a war meeting by the time word of Lincoln’s call arrived, so they used the gathering to discuss the raising of a local company. On that much they agreed, but they disagreed on what kind of company to raise. Some were for raising a “foot company,” others a “horse company,” and still others preferred service in a “cannon company.” Someone called for a word from Van Buren County recorder John M. Tuttle, and that official, who farmed and kept a store in addition to his official duties, referred to the issue in dispute as involving “infantry,” “cavalry,” and “artillery,” and gave his opinion in favor of infantry. The townsmen were so impressed with his military knowledge that they agreed to raise a company of infantry and elected Tuttle to command it. Years later Tuttle admitted that “in giving these definitions I went almost to the limit of my military knowledge.”
And so men flocked to the colors all across the Midwest, green as the late-April grass on the prairies and led by lawyers, clerks, and petty officials, but filled with enthusiasm and a deep determination to do their duty. They came in such numbers that the states quickly exceeded their recruiting quotas. The problem for many of the newly raised companies was gaining acceptance into the service. Some companies had to disband, at least for the time being, but most were eventually mustered into service. Some Illinois companies, like the Peoria Zouave Cadets, did so by crossing into Missouri and enlisting there as part of the 8th Missouri Regiment. As a border slave state, Missouri held divided loyalties. Many Missouri men would eventually enlist with the Confederacy, and thus the state would have had some difficulty fulfilling its U.S. recruiting quota if not for the influx of Illinoisans and others eager for a place in the ranks of any Union regiment that would take them. The 13th Missouri included one company from Illinois, six from Ohio, and only three from Missouri. The 9th Missouri Regiment included almost no Missourians at all—just Illinoisans.
The Illinois legislature, foreseeing the nation’s need of more troops, authorized the state to raise an additional ten regiments—one from each congressional district—beyond the six of Lincoln’s original request. These regiments, the 13th through the 21st Illinois, were filled almost at once. The state undertook to pay these 10,000 extra levies until the federal government realized its need for them. In like manner, Indiana’s redoubtable Governor Morton authorized additional regiments to be sworn into state service as “the Indiana Legion,” pending another call from the president.
The extra regiments, as well as the other companies clamoring for acceptance into Federal service in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa, did not have long to wait. Lincoln and his advisors in Washington soon recognized the need for more troops than the initial 75,000 and for longer terms than the original ninety-day enlistments. Early in the summer, the president called for additional troops to serve for three years. After the Union debacle at the first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, Lincoln issued a call for 500,000 three-year volunteers. With that, there was plenty of opportunity for everyone who wanted to be a soldier, and the states turned down no more companies, provided they had the requisite number of enlisted men. Officers, though usually devoid of training or experience, were never in short supply.
Indeed, the supply of would-be officers sometimes outstripped that of men prepared to follow them. The result was a bizarre competition for recruits. The man who successfully recruited a company would get a captain’s commission, so the race was on to raise the enlistments of the necessary eighty-four privates. Whereas companies during the first few weeks of the war had tended to be overstrength, aspiring captains were so numerous by late summer that many struggled to reach the requisite minimum enrollment for their companies.