"Seeing the Elephant": Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh

by Joseph Allan Frank, Rudy A. Pozzatti, George A. Reaves

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"Seeing the Elephant"

Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh

By Joseph Allan Frank, George A. Reaves


Copyright © 1989 Joseph Allan Frank and Alice Reaves
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09804-8




The men who enlisted to later fight at Shiloh were swept up by patriotic fervor. "The Fort [Sumter] has surrendered. ... We now have terrible times ... the war feeling in the North is immense. We are United," wrote Saul Howell in his diary (April 16 and 25, 1861). Son of a Pella, Iowa, physician, Howell was about to get his degree at Central College, but after Sumter he was enlisting instead. In the South, the same atmosphere prevailed. Citizens everywhere were taking up arms. Militia outfits were being forged at town meetings throughout the land. Even little Arkansas, with its population of 60,000 voters, boasted that it fielded twenty regiments in the first four months of mobilization (The Van Buren Press, September 25, 1861).

The volunteers were quintessential^ civilians; their offers of service were not open-ended and unquestioning. Their relationship with the government was, in their eyes, contractual. An officer joining the 6th Mississippi Regiment reminded his commander of the conditions for his enlistment, declaring that he could not serve on a regular basis, due to health reasons. The night air imperiled his condition, so guard duty after sunset was unfortunately out of question. Beyond this, however, he vowed that he was prepared to serve with equal diligence and risk all for Mississippi and the 6th Infantry (Thornton, "Statement by J.C. Cousins," December 3, 1861).

Dramatic accounts of the first engagement at Manassas poured from the local press. In Alabama, for example, The Clairborne Southerner described the uncontrollable martial impulse in a portrayal of a Mississippi outfit at Bull Run. The regiment was so eager to join with the enemy that it did not bother to reload and plunged on casting aside their firearms and resorting to the bowie knife when they closed with the Yankees. "Blood gushed from hundreds of wounds," The Southerner screamed histrionically (August 7, 1861). Reflecting the martial mood of the country, Captain John M. Coleman of the 15th Indiana Volunteers told his sister that "writing letters is like our fireside conversations, no matter how we begin it always ends on the war" (To Amanda, March 2, 1862).

James P. Snell, who joined the 32nd Illinois Infantry, declared that "when I hear of the fall of 'Fort Sumter' ... I could not controll my own feelings ... and would have shouldered my gun and started ... had it not been for the earnest entreaty of my Parents" (To John G. Copely, June 2, 1861). In Michigan, Joseph Ruff, a German immigrant, "walked the eight miles to Albion impelled every mile by the desire to help ... the saving of this great nation" (1943: 277). In Tennessee, much the same sentiment prevailed, Sam Watkins remembered how "every person ... was eager for the war, and we were all afraid it would be over and we not be in the fight" (1962: 21).

The press stoked up the patriotic fires quoting an Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., poem:

    God of all Nations! Sovereign Lord!
    In Thy dreaded name we draw the sword,
    We lift the starry flag on high
    That fills with light our stormy sky.

    (The Daily Steubenville Herald, June 29, 1861)

The sheet music of patriotic songs was swept up, the choruses resounding from the marching ranks. Surgeon William B. Fletcher was waiting to entrain at Parkersburg (then in Virginia), when one of the men in Company A (6th Indiana) "Sung the 'Star Spangled Banner' with much feeling and the whole Company filled the chorus" (Memoirs, June 5, 1861).

The press bombarded those youths who were not answering the call to the colors with enough alacrity with castigations and summations to do their duty. In Tuskegee, Alabama, The South Western Baptist (February 27, 1862) berated the stay-at-homes, "Why do you stay at home while others are in the field? Are they not as good as you? ... Examine yourselves and see if selfishness or cowardice or some unworthy motive is not at the bottom of all your excuses. If you have any mettle in you let it be seen now. The time has come and you know it. ... Would you let the women and children hoot you into the army!" The pressure exerted by the press in the Southwest was probably more intense because of the threat of imminent invasion. Memphis was especially vulnerable as Grant's army swept into the interior threatening to cut it off from the rest of the country. The Yankee was at the door. A woman wrote to the editor of The Memphis Daily Appeal (February 20, 1862), "What are young men doing in Memphis at such a time as this?" She goaded them mercilessly, "Are you really willing ... to be slapped in the face, snubbed, pricked with bayonets ... and insulted by every epithet that a gloating, jubilant Yankee can manufacture?" Yet another excited matron, this one from Columbus, Kentucky, denounced those who "dare assert men able to be soldiers should stay at home to protect female relatives. Shortsighted vision! The best way to protect women," she declared, "is to slay the foe before he gets a foot-hold in our midst" (The Memphis Daily Appeal, March 1, 1862).

Henry Morton Stanley (the famed explorer) was a young immigrant in Arkansas when the war broke out. He delayed his enlistment until the female fire-eaters drove him to enlist. "I received a parcel," he recounted, "which I half suspected as the address was written in a feminine hand, to be a token of some lady's regard; but on opening it, I discovered a chemise and petticoat, such as negro lady's maid might wear. I hastily hid it from view, and retired to the back room, that my burning cheeks might not betray me to some onlooker" (Laurie 1985: 43).

Most of the volunteers shared this patriotic devotion. A young Confederate named Willie wrote to his brother urging him to sign up, "Every man who is not a producer, or who has not a family to support should rally in defence of his home and his kindred" (To Sister M., The Republican Banner, September 4, 1861). Like the generation of 1914–18, the men who marched off to Shiloh were not restrained by recent memories of war. Most were too young to have served in the Mexican War. The veterans from the 1845–48 conflict were already reaching middle age.

The regiments that were being created were socially and politically homogeneous. The men were often friends, neighbors, and relatives enlisting together. The volunteers were careful about the comrades who enlisted with them. They wanted to make sure their comrades had compatible political views and that they could count on them when things got hot. Cyrus Boyd in Indianola, Iowa, had an acquaintance named Fisk who was forming the nucleus of a company that later was to become Company G, 15th Iowa Infantry, but a friend warned Boyd that Fisk might not be dependable. "'Fisk,'" he warned, was a Democrat and "'he may betray you someplace when you are in a tight place'" (Boyd 1953: 7). The social homogeneity of these volunteer regiments facilitated the development of unit cohesion during the early months of the war.

The quality of the recruits was probably higher than the regular army enlistees. A correspondent of the 15th Indiana wrote to the editor that the "war volunteers are usually men of much more education than those who enlist in time of peace" (The Daily State Sentinel, August 17, 1861). The average company in the Union army probably only had a half dozen illiterates (B. I. Wiley 1978a: 305–6). In the Confederate army, the portion of illiterates might have been only slightly larger. Wiley (1978b: 336–37) pointed out that "the great majority of companies throughout the army had anywhere from one to a score of members who could not write their names."

Physically, however, the volunteer army of 1861–62 in the West was probably of mixed quality as we shall see with the ravages of the first winter. Medical examinations must have been perfunctory to say the least — 400 Union women managed to sneak through (G. W. Adams 1952: 12–13)! Part of the reason was that recruiters had a vested interest in enlisting as many men as they could in order to get their rank as early as possible for seniority purposes. This would have a corrosive effect on combat morale later on. Some regiments went into action at Shiloh with half their men on sick call.

The units were socially and economically homogeneous, composed mainly of farmers and men from small towns, coming from occupations that were associated with agriculture and the rural administrative and commercial activity that was auxiliary to it. Most, at least those on the Northern side, were recruited in rural townships where the principal economic activity was small grain farming, such as wheat, barley, oats, and corn. The small grain farming cycle engendered uniform social patterns that strengthened community bonds around similar harvest schedules and specific moments in the year requiring community cooperation. Most of the regiments at Shiloh came from such rural communities, rather than from the larger cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. Southern regiments, except for a few from New Orleans, were mainly from small rural townships as well. Less than one out of three of the recruits who gave their residence came from urban areas that were connected to the national communications network via rail and telegraph and had a population of more than 3,000 inhabitants. They were not, however, technologically unsophisticated, being familiar with railroads, steamships, telegraph lines, and various types of machinery. They were early participants in the mechanization of agriculture. Their efficiency provided the excess capital to finance the war.

Besides being essentially rural types, the volunteers were quite young. Three-fourths of the new soldiers were under twenty-five years of age. Socially and economically, these volunteers probably represented a fair cross-section of their communities. They were hardly the marginal elements of society, what Lord Arthur Wellington called "'The biggest scamps unhung,'" when he described his own army fifty years before (Moran 1966: 162).

Further reinforcing the cohesiveness of these territorially recruited regiments was their ethnic homogeneity. The overwhelming majority of the volunteers were native born. There were few among the troops who by name or writing style suggested that they were born abroad. Company E, 11th Iowa could have been typical; its ninety-seven–man roster included only twelve foreign-born soldiers: three Canadians, four Irish, two English, two Germans, and one Frenchman (Downing 1916: 13). The examinations of every tenth man of the six Iowa regiments showed that only 6 percent were native-born Iowans, which is not surprising in itself because the state was only recently settled. This very fact made Iowa a good sample to check, because virtually all its recruits would have been from elsewhere, and as a result, the recent pioneer population would be more heterogenous. Yet the foreign element was insignificant, making up only 14 percent of the sample, and half of these had English names, suggesting they came from Canada and England and were not linguistically and culturally very dissimilar. That left approximately 7 percent of the troops coming from culturally alien areas such as Germany. Among the Germans, few — perhaps 2 percent of the Iowa contingent — were old enough to have fought in the revolution of 1848, thus, even the German troops were not politically distinct. The largest group of the troops came from the old Northwest (44 percent), 23 percent came from the Mid-Atlantic states, and only 6 percent came from New England. Significantly, Southerners outnumbered New Englanders among the Iowans (7 percent), coming from slave states such as Missouri, Kentucky, and Virginia. This leads to the conclusion that the Western armies were generally far more ethnically homogeneous than their Eastern counterparts. Furthermore, most of Shiloh's regiments were not recruited in the larger cities where many of the Germans and Irish settled.

The new recruits were so similar that their family ties often overlapped the political boundaries that now separated them. This was especially true in the Western armies, whose volunteers came from counties of states abutting the Ohio and thus often had families who had settled alternately on the south side of the river in Kentucky or farther south in Tennessee. For example, Colonel Thomas Harrison commanding the 39th Indiana was of Southern ancestry and was perhaps typical of many others at Shiloh. Harrison's father had come to Indiana from Kentucky, following the same route as many other Southerners including President Lincoln (The Howard Tribune, September 19,1861; Grant 1982:124; Barton 1981: 15).

B. I. Wiley (1978b: 99) aptly described the Confederate army (and for that matter the Union army too) as a "neighborhood army." Regional recruitment cemented the early volunteer units and compensated for their lack of training. It was in line with the advice of the first-century Greek general Osnander who counseled that the leader should post "'brothers in rank beside brothers; friends beside friends; and lovers beside their favorites'" (F. M Richardson 1978: 7). Osnander realized that local recruiting provided social compatibility, conformity, comradeship, tradition, and territoriality that were the major sources of cohesion during the first year of a campaign.

Effective recruiting also entailed emphasizing the community ties when advertising in the local newspaper. For example, John Keeper, seeking men for Company A, 53rd Ohio, promised that the company would be territorially homogeneous, with recruits from the same county (The Ironton Register, August 8, 1861).

Once a captain had signed up his quota of between eighty and one hundred recruits, the company was moved to a state reception center and combined with others into a regiment. There it was inducted into service, trained, and armed (Rudolph 1984: 10). But even after recruitment, politicking continued as each company and regiment held elections for lieutenant colonels, majors, and lieutenants. Even captains who had formed their companies might face elections, although colonels were usually appointed and not elected. Whereas professional armies invoke personal career incentives for drawing recruits, a mass army, mobilizing for a national emergency, recruits its soldiers with different inducements. Mobilizing a citizen army requires patriotic ideals. The mass army had to share prevailing ideas and understand the issues at stake. Thus, armies in the North and South were politicized because they were people's armies. Each army was composed of volunteer units that emerged from the bosom of their communities, sharing the same beliefs and opinions. The populace participated actively in organizing the outfits and in selecting commanders. An unwritten, but nevertheless binding, agreement came into place between the soldiers and their community. If either one failed in this mutual undertaking, the other quickly heard about it. As long as the bond remained strong, the community and its regiment were unified behind the cause.

Although the national authorities were obliged to share control of the armies with state authorities, they nevertheless gained from the partnership. The local leaders were instrumental in effectuating the mobilization. Their fervid support and active participation not only provided manpower, but the community also eased the financial burden for the national authorities. The people shouldered an important part of the costs of raising the regiments themselves. In the first month of the war, the citizens of the Northern states privately raised $23,777,000 (Hattaway and Jones 1983: 34). For example, it cost as much as $500,000 to organize and equip a cavalry regiment and there were units, such as the 1st Louisiana Cavalry, that were entirely funded by public subscription. Other communities made more modest, but nevertheless important, contributions. They held fairs, organized dances, and staged patriotic plays to raise funds to equip their boys better than any other company in the army and outshine any other town. Such efforts demonstrated the intense community pride. Most typically, the ladies would sew a flag for the regiment or even, as in Grant's Galena, Illinois, make the company's uniforms (Grant 1982: 117). Such active local participation made state service more attractive than federal service (Mahon and Danysh 1972: 24). Federal infantry recruiters had a hard time getting men to fill their regiments. The 18th United States Infantry, which had a battalion at Shiloh, ran into this very problem. Lacking identity with any state, town, or county, it had a hard time getting volunteers and had to resort to paying a recruiter two dollars bounty for enlistees (The Lima Weekly Gazette, July 24, 1861).


Excerpted from "Seeing the Elephant" by Joseph Allan Frank, George A. Reaves. Copyright © 1989 Joseph Allan Frank and Alice Reaves. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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