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Raising an Army in the North
Northern Society was rapidly changing on the eve of the Civil War, and some of these changes affected the way Northern men would view military service. One clear sign of change was the extraordinary use of Northern cities. The nation as a whole was growing each decade from 1790 onward, the American population increased by about one-third, the fastest growth rate in the world. But cities were growing much faster. The population of New York, the nation's largest city, rose by nearly 70 percent in the 1850s, surpassing a million; Philadelphia, the next largest city, grew by 39 percent to more than a half-million.
Some newer cities exceeded even these rates. Buffalo, which had only 8,000 people in 1930, grew to more than 80,000 by I860, and Newark, New Jersey, which had not existed as a town in 1830, passed 70,000 just thirty years later. The most remarkable increase occurred in Chicago, which went from a few cabins in 1830 to more than 1000,000 people in 1860. Smaller cities and towns likewise flourished throughout the North. The South had New Orleans, whose growth was similar to that of Northern cities, but only one in ten Southerners lived in cities and towns on the eve of the Civil War, compared with more than a third of people in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.
Just as they always had, most Americans still lived on farms and in the villages that served them, but farming could no longer provide a living for everyone in a population that doubled every twenty-five years. The adventurous could still find farm land to the west, but cities, especially Northern cities, were the great magnets of opportunity. Antebellum cities were built on commerce: the nation's population passed 30 million in the 1850s, and feeding, clothing, and otherwise supplying this many people created an immense flow of goods through cities like Buffalo and Philadelphia, with money to be made at every step. The cities also had manufacturing, though not yet an industrial revolution. Large, mechanized factories employing armies of workers were found primarily in the textile industry; most other manufacturing took place in small shops where a master craftsman or merchant watched over a few workers. But here too there was money to be made for people willing to put up with the overcrowding, crime, and appalling death rates that plagued the cities.
And on they came, young people leaving the countryside to become bank clerks or dockworkers or shoemakers, immigrants coming from western Europe to become weavers or day laborers, and African Americans fleeing the South to become porters or domestic servants. Yet cities did not bring prosperity to all newcomers. Work that was plentiful and steady in good times could become sporadic in a slow season and disappear in a depression. On the eve of the Civil War the North had just emerged from one such depression, touched off in 1857 by the failure of a major investment firm and the collapse of wheat prices. Merchants, bankers, and manufacturers cut back or closed down at times like these, and there was no unemployment insurance for clerks or ironworkers or anyone else whose wages ceased. Unpredictable bouts of unemployment were a hard fact of life for men and women in the North's commercial economy.
Another lesson had to be learned by those who wanted a living wage in the world of urban commerce. Rural Americans had taken for granted that people made most of their own decisions, within limits set by nature. Farmers decided what and when to plant, storekeepers decided what supplies to order, and success depended on providence and one's own industry. Likewise, tailors, blacksmiths, and other village artisans had controlled production in their shops. But working for wages involved an entirely different set of conditions. When an employer offered work, employees worked by the owner's rules. Employers decided the hours of work and the tasks to be done, and they owned the place of work and often the equipment the workers used. In exchange for wages, workers had to give up much of the control over life that they or their parents had enjoyed. Labor unions sometimes challenged employers' worst abuses: workers demanded and won a ten-hour day in many industries, and twenty thousand Massachusetts shoemakers struck in 1860 to protest low wages. But unions faced bitter opposition from owners and public officials and were usually crippled by economic depressions. Most workers had to cope as individuals with the new rules of work.
Self-control was the approved method for individuals to deal with the demands of wage employment. Self-discipline was nothing new in antebellum America: the New England Puritans had preached against idleness and waste in the seventeenth century, and Benjamin Franklin had promoted rigorous self-discipline in the eighteenth century. But the overwhelming emphasis on self-denial in the nineteenth century was unprecedented. Social reformers, educators, writers of guidebooks on child-rearing, and ministers pleaded with Americans to reject temptation, reminding them of the consequences of indulgence in sex, drinking, gambling, and idleness. Prominent men and women insisted that every act of self-indulgence broke down character as well as the body (in men, for example, every sex act drained away vital fluid), and would lead to crime or insanity.
Influenced by this conviction, officials of penitentiaries, insane asylums, and poorhouses tried to indoctrinate residents in self-discipline. Public officials insisted that poverty, for example, was "the result of such self-indulgence, unthrift, excess, or idleness, as is next of kin to criminality." School officials were similarly determined to teach "habits of regularity, punctuality, constancy and industry in the pursuits of business."
Parents in the growing middle class worked long and hard to Inspire self-control in their children. Unlike farmers, most urban fathers spent the day away from the household, working for pay, and it became the mother's job to instill in sons and daughters a conscience for self-regulation. By doling out or withholding affection and approval, mothers (occasionally reinforced by their husbands) cultivated the "tyrannical monitor," as one nineteenth-century American called his conscience. Parents wanted a properly functioning conscience to be an internal brake on their children's impulses, to head off wrongdoing before it could begin. Parents and advice-givers agreed that only through self-control could people achieve happiness and success: everyone must religiously avoid wasting energy, money, and time. If people heeded this advice, they would have little trouble with the time and work demands of employers.
Was this approach successful? It was preached most urgently in the Northeast, and evidence from several Northeastern communities shows that premarital pregnancies declined in the nineteenth century, one hint that Americans accepted reformers' preaching on sexual restraint. Yet there are also indications of strong resistance to the dictates of self-control. Historian Anthony Rotundo argues that middle-class boys in the nineteenth century were strongly inclined to impulsive violence and vandalism; other evidence of resistance comes from strikes by workers, many of whom refused to embrace employers' definitions of self-discipline.
The North showed other signs of change before the Civil War. The outside world was coming ever closer, even for people who lived far from the cities. Telegraph lines stretched from coast to coast and into most communities, and railroad construction was booming. More than twenty thousand miles of rails were laid in the I850S, bringing most Northerners within two days' travel of one another. Northern farmers had become more involved with the wider world and were now producing most of their wheat, corn, and livestock for sale; a few decades earlier, most crops raised outside the densely settled New England states had been for home use. And Northerners, like Americans in other regions, were a restless people. Young men and older families alike, especially when they had little land or other wealth, moved frequently from place to place in search of a better living. Historians studying nineteenth-century communities have found that as many as half the residents moved away each decade.
Yet many Northerners clung to old habits even as they did business with the outside world. Many rural and small-town families did not move about, and they were the core of neighborhoods of friends and relatives dependent on one another for farming help, church fellowship, and socializing. Farm women, even when their husbands raised crops for sale, continued to produce butter, eggs, and clothing for exchange and home use. When the crops were harvested and sold, men would often take their favorite rifle and hunting dogs and head to the woods, seeking game as had generations before them.
These men would also take up arms for their country. About 100,000 men had volunteered for the war against Mexico in the 1840s. Most of the soldiers had come from south and west of the Appalachians, but war fever had caught up communities everywhere. Most towns thus had at least a few Mexican War veterans who could entertain young people with their exploits in the most recent war.
But Americans distrusted regular armies, and they even refused to take militia duty seriously. Communities were supposed to ensure that their adult males were ready for emergency military duty, but militia responsibilities had become mainly a source for officers' titles and an excuse for getting, in the words of one observer, "supremely drunk" at periodic drills. As the sectional crisis deepened in the late 1850s and early 1860s, a number of states tried to revive their militia units.
Secession came quickly on the heels of Abraham Lincoln's election. South Carolina, where secessionist sentiment had been strong for years, voted to secede in December I860, forcing its neighbors either to join it or risk having to take up arms against fellow Southerners. By February 1861 six states chose to join South Carolina. On April 15, the day after Fort Sumter fell to Confederate forces in South Carolina, Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 state militiamen. After four upper South states joined the seven that had already seceded, the President recognized that his call-up would scarcely produce an adequate army. On May 3 Lincoln asked for 60,000 additional volunteers for three years' service in the army and navy. Congress, meeting in July, authorized 500,000 more volunteers, and when Union troops were routed at Bull Run before the month was out, lawmakers called for another half-million troops. Mobilizing troops was still seen as a state and local responsibility, so federal officials assigned troop quotas to the states and counted on them to do the rest.
At first the states were largely successful. Governors called for smaller communities to raise companies (about one hundred men each) and larger areas to raise regiments (usually ten companies). Local patriotism then took over. Lawyers or merchants ran newspaper advertisements and printed posters such as this one from Massachusetts: "War! War! War! . . . All citizens are requested to meet at the town hall this evening to see what can be done." At such a rally a local band would play patriotic anthems; politicians, visiting dignitaries, and perhaps a Mexican War veteran would exhort the crowd to stand up for their state and their Union; and local men would come forward. The volunteers would elect their officers, who were often the organizers of the recruiting, and make ready to go to war. Local women would be busy too, making flags, collecting supplies, and even sewing uniforms in these days before the Union adopted standard-issue blue. Within a week or two the new company would be ready for its send-off. Again the brass bands would play, the women would formally present their flag to the troops, farewells would be said, and the soldiers would be on their way to be mustered into federal service. By early 1862, 700,000 troops were thus mobilized for the Union army, and the War Department began to close its recruiting offices .
But by the summer of 1862 it became clear that more soldiers would be needed and that they would be harder to recruit. The war was going well in the West: the army and navy had taken fifty thousand square miles of territory and had captured Memphis and New Orleans on the Mississippi River, though the formidable defenses of Vicksburg remained in Confederate hands. But in the East the Union campaign to take Richmond had gone miserably. General George McClellan's Army of the Potomac, after advancing close enough in May to hear the Confederate capital's church bells, fell back under sharp attacks by what McClellan wrongly believed was a much larger Confederate army. By July the assault on Richmond was abandoned by a high command convinced that McClellan's failure of nerve had cost a chance for a quick end to the war.
But it was not strategic failures alone that alarmed federal officials. The human toll of Civil War battles was beginning to hit home: in the western Battle of Shiloh, 13,000 Union soldiers had been killed, wounded, or captured; in Virginia the Union lost 5,000 men at Seven Pines, and McClellan's army suffered 16,000 more casualties in the Seven Days' Battle that led to the Richmond campaign's abandonment. Thousands more died of disease, and it would not be easy mobilizing more troops among civilians who were well aware of these losses. Lincoln called for 300,000 more soldiers in July, but it was clear that the days of the patriotic rush to war were over.
To fill their quotas under this new call, state and local officials inflated the traditional payment of soldiers' bounties. Once meant primarily as a discharge payment, the bounty now became a bonus for enlistment. The federal government allowed only a $25 advance on its bounty, but state and local governments added amounts averaging about $100 to coax men into new volunteer companies. If this did not work, the federal government threatened to intervene. In July 1862 Congress ordered the states to activate their militia units (and empowered federal officials to do so if state leaders dragged their feet), and to draft enough militiamen to cover any shortfall in meeting troop quotas. Most states met their 1862 quotas with volunteers, but some had to resort to militia drafts. In several places where support for the war was lukewarm, mobs attacked and occasionally killed the militia's enrolling officers.
Yet African Americans, the one group eager to go to war with or without bonuses, remained unwelcome in the army. The eminent black spokesman Frederick Douglass condemned "the pride, the stupid prejudice and folly" that compelled Northerners "to fight only with your white hand, and allow your black hand to remain tied." But the prevailing mood among whites was expressed by a Pennsylvania soldier, who predicted that if blacks were allowed in the army "our own Soldiers will kill more of them than the Rebs would." As a result, the government's early policies on black troops were halting and contradictory.
But as casualties mounted and Northern morale worsened, the prospect of black troops taking up the burden of fighting became more appealing. Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 endorsed a war to change Southern society, and the final version of the Proclamation on New Year's Day officially authorized African-American troops. Some black regiments had already been organized in the West, and one unit had seen action. Now, in 1863, recruiters began to enlist thousands of African Americans as Union soldiers.
But the need for men seemed endless. The mobilization crisis of 1862 repeated itself in the spring of 1863. Vicksburg still stood in the West, and Union forces had been badly beaten at Fredericksburg, Virginia, late in 1862. Worse still, the government had accepted some two-year recruits early in the war, and these troops were about to go home. As a result Congress enacted a full-scale military draft in March 1863. Federal provost marshals were to visit congressional districts and identify men aged twenty to forty-five who had not joined the army. Their names were then to be drawn by lot to fill any shortfalls in their districts' volunteering.
Men subject to the draft did, however, enjoy some alternatives to service. They could still volunteer and avoid the stigma of being a conscript. Otherwise, to avoid joining the army, they could pay a $300 "commutation" fee that exempted them until the next draft (a provision which was largely repealed in 1864). Or they could hire a substitute, who would exempt them from future drafts as well. Fewer than 10 percent of the men whose names were drawn were in fact conscripted into the army; the rest volunteered, left for parts unknown, were exempted for medical reasons or as family providers, or bought their way out.
The draft, especially its exemptions for those who could afford them, dramatically intensified opposition to the war. Workers angrily protested in cities and towns from the Mid-west to New England. In New York in 1863, Irish workers attacked draft officials and wealthy-looking men and then turned their fury on any African Americans they could find, seeing in them the cause of the war. The New York riot killed more than a hundred people and injured three hundred others. But the draft also had its intended effect on enlistments: although only 46,000 men were conscripted into the army, 800,000 others enlisted or reenlisted after the draft went into effect.
In all, nearly two million whites and almost 180,000 African Americans served in the Union army, or about 35 percent of the military-age population of the North. Who were they, and why did some join while others stayed away? The first answer to this question is youth. Studies of Northern enlistments have consistently shown that the highest rate of enlistment was among men in their late teens: 4o to 50 percent of them joined the army, whereas enlistment rates dropped to well under 20 percent among men over age thirty. Historian Reid Mitchell has argued that soldiering offered young men a definitive passage to manhood, which helps to explain the enthusiasm of young men early in the war. When word came of Fort Sumter's fall, James Snell, for example, "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." But this opportunity was bound up with patriotic duty for young soldiers. An Ohioan knew that he "would prove one of the most neglectful of sons" unless he risked his life for "the good form of government for which [his grandfather] gave seven years of the best of his life, [and] which has made me what I am." In this respect Union soldiers were like soldiers in most volunteer armies - young and eager to demonstrate their manly patriotism.
But we must remember that this war had a character of its own. James Snell's recollection of nearly losing control is an important clue to understanding Northern soldiers. The concern with self-control that was so prominent a feature of Northern society appears repeatedly in the writings of Union soldiers. They longed to achieve self-discipline: a Massachusetts soldier declared that a fallen comrade had been "absolutely cool and collected.... It is impossible for me to conceive of a man more perfectly master of himself." Inner discipline was also how Union soldiers defined themselves in contrast to others. A Union general believed that the war's cause was Southerners' "lawless and malignant passion," and soldiers often wrote of their need to punish the South's rebelliousness, to impose the discipline that Southerners had rejected. White men likewise contrasted themselves with black soldiers in their own army: where whites were supposed to be cool and controlled, one white officer believed that his black troops were "affectionate, enthusiastic, and dramatic beyond all others."
Other clues to understanding Union soldiers come from the characteristics of those who served and those who did not. Overall the Union army contained about the same percentage of farmers, skilled laborers, and other workers as did the adult male population, but aggregate comparisons overlook differences in age, property holding, and so on. Several studies comparing soldiers with noncombatants in Northern communities have found that Northerners' decisions were heavily influenced by their economic situation. When age is held constant, it becomes clear that, in areas where commerce predominated, artisans, unskilled laborers, and even white-collar men (and their sons) were more likely to serve than were farmers; where farming dominated, men with little or no property (and their sons) were especially likely to enlist.
There were, of course, individual and group exceptions to the enlistment findings. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would later become a Supreme Court justice, and Robert Gould Shaw, son of a wealthy Boston family, served in Massachusetts regiments. And immigrants, especially the Irish, were less likely to enlist: some had not applied for citizenship and thus were not subject to the draft, and those who did serve often encountered hostility from native-born troops. But in general, Northerners with reason to worry about their livelihood - who depended on the whims of business cycles and employers or on small plots of land, sometimes owned by a landlord - were more likely to respond to the economic incentives offered by military service.
Did local politics also affect Northerners' enlistment decisions? It makes sense to suppose that, in communities that supported Lincoln's Republican party, loyal Republicans would eagerly join the army and insist that their neighbors do likewise, and that Democratic communities would discourage enlistment. Some studies have indeed found that draft evasion and desertion were more frequent in places with lukewarm support for the war, and their Democratic sympathies may have contributed to immigrants' reluctance to enlist. But a study of two New Hampshire towns has shown that men in the Democratic town were more likely to enlist than those in the Republican town. Local political climates thus appear to have been a less consistent influence on Northern men's enlistment decisions than was concern for their livelihood.
The monetary incentives for enlistment became impressive as the need for men became more urgent. In 1863 the federal government raised its enlistment bounty to $300; together with state and local bounties, volunteers could easily receive much more than the $460 yearly earnings of an average worker. With more modest bonuses already in effect for some time, and with payments for enlisting plus provisions for buying one's way out of service, it is clear that recruitment acted as an economic market for most of the war.
The importance of this market is demonstrated by the treatment of African-American soldiers. Primarily to make black troops more acceptable to hostile whites, the army refused to allow African Americans to participate as equals in the recruitment market. Blacks often received less bounty money than did whites, and recruiters sometimes refused to pay black soldiers the bounties they were owed. Moreover, until late in the war, blacks received half or less, depending on rank, of whites' monthly pay. Nonetheless, 38,000 blacks from the free states enlisted, and 140,000 Southern blacks defied white Southerners' harassment and threats to their families and joined the Union army.
Again largely to make black troops palatable, Union officials decided that black regiments should have white officers and took special care in selecting them. Convinced that black men needed extraordinary leadership to make them into adequate soldiers, and aware that black units would face hostility, army officials created special examining boards for black units' officers. The War Department had largely replaced officer elections with examinations in white units as well, but candidates for black units received exceptional grilling on army procedures and general knowledge. Forty percent of candidates failed the test, and the failure rate would have been higher except for a special school created to prepare candidates for the test. The poor quality of officers, which often crippled the effectiveness of white units, was undoubtedly a lesser problem among the United States Colored Troops.
A wide assortment of men joined the Union army, but there were patterns we can identify among them. Those who fought for the Union tended to be young, to be (or to have a parent who was) in an occupation with an uncertain future, and to be concerned with self-control. How did military service meet the needs of such men? A few soldiers frankly admitted that economic insecurity drove them to enlist. Historian David Blight, examining the career of Charles Brewster, has argued that enlistment in a Massachusetts regiment was Brewster's "effort to compensate for prior failure" as a store clerk "and to imagine a new career." Other soldiers, however, spoke of patriotism and duty in referring to their enlistment. Some historians have concluded from such sentiments that wage earners, needing opportunities in a commercial, free-labor society, gladly fought against a South they saw as an aristocratic, slavery-bound threat to their livelihood. But in rural areas, small farmers were the men most likely to enlist, and most cared little about jobs for wage
Military-age men probably thought as much about what they had to sacrifice as what they had to gain by going to war. If he enlisted, a master shoemaker who had been put out of business by shoe factories was not giving up the same security as was a prosperous wheat farmer. Henry Bear of Illinois was explicit about this kind of reasoning: "I studied the cost and measured the way before I enlisted." As bounties surpassed $400 or $500, the economic sacrifice lessened, and more financially secure men could be induced into the army. But the backbone of the Union army were men for whom the dangers of war were not a bad trade for a tenuous future in a shop or on the farm.
Perhaps the most famous cliche to emerge from the Civil War is the accusation that this was "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Those making this charge against the Union army had an inkling of the truth, but it was not exactly the poor who predominated in the army; craftsmen and clerks were also common in the ranks. Union recruitment, with its bonuses and loopholes, opened an alternative to an insecure world of work. A cliche that has also come down to us is that the Civil War was a conflict of "brother against brother." Besides its literal meaning - there are innumerable cases of brothers fighting on opposite sides, from generals on down the ranks - does this phrase also tell a larger truth? Were the two armies essentially alike?