“After the battle was fought, I went into a grove where the Secessionists had been concealed. I found the ground covered with the dead and dying. The sight was one that I pray never to see again. One poor fellow with his leg blown off called me to him and asked me to shake hands with him. He then asked me if I had any ill feeling toward him. I replied. ‘No; but I am sorry that brothers should be obliged to slaughter each other in this manner.’ The poor follow burst into tears and said he came from Georgia, and that they would have shot him in his own house if he had not come. I saw many heartrending scenes, too numerous to mention.”
Besides being a vivid account of the aftermath at Manassas, published by Providence Evening Press in July 1861 in Rhode Island, this passage caught my attention. The exchange between the two soldiers reminded me that soldiers from all walks of life had their own reason for joining the army. In the case of the Georgian, he was pressured by his household and threatened that if he should stay home, he’d be shot.
About 80% of soldiers in the Civil War were literate to some degree, which has allowed historians to read their words and thoughts over a century and a half later. We have the privilege of diving into the archives to try and understand what motivated these men to take up arms and fight for four years in the bloodiest war in America’s history.
So, for a moment, I’d like to explore all the various reasons why a soldier would willfully enlist.
For the Cause – Historians and scholars have attempted to make the assertion that society during the Civil War was far more idealistic and philosophical than any other time in America’s history. This can be backed up by the letters and diary entries penned by the men themselves. In these documents, we can come to understand their respective causes. For the North, it was to preserve the Union and democracy – with a small minority interested in destroying the institute of slavery. For the South, it was to declare their independence, protect their homelands, and their right to liberty and property (i.e. slaves).
A nineteen-year-old farm boy from Indiana joined the Union in order “to aid my country in her desperate struggle against oppression and slavery, and against Rebels and Traitors.” Still another thirty-three-year-old sergeant from Minnesota told his wife, “It is not for you and I, or us & our dear little ones, alone, that I was and am willing to risk the fortunes of the battle-field, but also for the sake of the country’s millions who are to come after us.”
A young doctor from Kentucky, likewise, felt strongly toward “the vandals of the North… are determined to destroy slavery… We must all fight, and I choose to fight for southern rights and southern liberty.”
While the cause for the South seemed more concrete, the ideals and patriotism of the North is palatable in the words of one captain with the 12th New Jersey. “Though my nightly prayer is for peace, ‘tis an honorable peace. I would rather live a soldier for life [than] see this country made a mighty sepulcher in which should be buried out institutions, our nationality, our flag, and every American that today lives, than our Republic should be divided into little nothings by an inglorious and shameful peace.”
If someone were to speak of “honor” and “duty” and other abstract notions of heroism and fighting for an ideology, we’d look at them a little sideways. But for the men of the 19th century, these concepts weren’t just rhetoric and romanticism. They whole-heartedly believed in their cause that it would drive them away from their homes and loved ones. One yeoman from Alabama, who later joined the cavalry, wrote to his family, “If it were not for the love of my country and family and the patriotism that burn in my bosom for them I would bee glad to come home and stay there but I no I have as much to fite for as any body else.”
For the Adventure – It’s a common image that comes to mind when we think of the initial days and weeks of recruitment. Young men standing before a cheering crowd because they have taken the leap of faith and volunteered in their local company or regiment. This kind of “rage militaire” isn’t seen as widely today, but in the beginning phase of the Civil War, many young enlistees were driven by a fervor of patriotism to join up.
One New Yorker wrote on April 15th, 1861 about how his town had been turned upside down with the news of war. “The feeling runs mountains high, and thousands of men are offering their services where hundreds only required.”
A student at the University of Virginia wrote, “The news of Va.’s secession reached here about 10 oc’lk amid huzzahs and shouts… All was excitement and ‘go’.”
At the time, many believed that this would be a short war. The enlistment terms began at 90 days, while some were willing to sign on for the entirety of the war in the south. The North was confident that they, as the more industrialized portion of the country, could fight the Rebels with one hand tied behind their back. The South, bolstered by their ideological enthusiasm, believed that since their cause was “closer to home” than it was for the Yankees, they would be able to win their independence just as easily.
That attitude quickly changed and the tone of the letters and diary entries makes a shift as the years progress and the battles become bloodier and bloodier. Many soldier accounts affirm the reality of combat, similar to what an officer in the North Carolina said to his mother, “I can’t describe a battle to you. No one can imagine anything like it unless he has been in one.”
A twenty-one-year-old planter’s son from North Carolina wrote to his mother “The excitement, the activity, and the novelty are perfectly captivating. I have a glorious time.” By February of 1863, he takes it all back and says, “I am sick and tired of the service and I would give almost anything to have this abominable war ended.”
Union soldiers held the same, as a former lawyer with the 14th New Jersey wrote to his mother regarding his eager brother, “If he expects fun and excitement (which between us is at the bottom of all his patriotism) he will be most emphatically mistaken. It is too preposterous to think of.” The older brother was later killed at the battle of Third Winchester.
For the Family – As the newspaper excerpt describes, many men enlisted because it was what was expected of them from their families and communities. Peer pressure from their colleagues and mentors would persuade young men to join. In Henry William Reddick’s memoir, “Seventy-Seven Years in Dixie”, he opens the first chapter with the enlistment pressures in Eucheeanna, Florida. “The ladies of the county made a direct appeal to each man in these never-to-be-forgotten words: ‘Go, boys, to your country’s call! I’d rather be a brave man’s widow than a coward’s wife.’ To those loyal women is due the honor that sixty of us volunteered that bleak March day at old Eucheeanna.” He accompanies this passage with a crude sketch of the very scene he describes.
For others, it may have been a tradition. Though the enlistee might not have been a regular in the army or part of any formal army unit prior to the war, his father and grandfather might have been. For instance, my 3rd great-grandfather on my father’s side, Silas Stephens, enlisted with the 32nd Wisconsin Infantry and served in many of the western battles, following Sherman all the way to the Carolinas. His father, likely contributed his voice and feeling toward Silas enlisting. Perry Stephens himself, served with Captain John Dominick’s company in the New York Militia during the War of 1812. And before him, Jared Stephens was in the 4th Regiment, Albany County Militia during the Revolutionary War. For many soldiers, entering the army was a family tradition, almost how it is today.
For the Home – As before stated, Southerners had something more substantial to defend than the ideal of Union. They understood that if they didn’t fight back, their homes would likely be invaded. In hindsight, very few places in the former Confederate states were left untouched by the Federal army during the war.
“For homes and firesides” was the general cry of the southern soldier who traveled hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away to defend their home.
An Alabamian lawyer reasoned that, “When a Southron’s home is threatened, the spirit of resistance is irrepressible.”
A planter who joined the 6th Georgia Infantry was preoccupied by the dread of what would happen if his home were invaded and ravaged by the Yankees. For him, he joined “in defense of innocent girls & women from the fangs of lecherous Northern hirelings, who from the accounts here stated, are indeed engaged in this strife for ‘beauty and booty’.”
Other Confederates, like Robert E. Lee, pitched into the fray in defense of their home state. An anti-secessionist major with the 2nd Virginia Cavalry stated that his reason for joining up, “It will be for Virginia, the land of my fathers, and not for the damned secession movement”
For the Money – If the appeal of ideals and home didn’t motivate men, it would be the money – or lack thereof.
The excitement of enlisting began to wear off in 1862, and as less men joined up, more were being taken out of commission in the fight, creating a crisis for both armies. Both sides employed strategies to navigate this crisis. In December 1861, the Confederate Congress enacted legislation providing each soldier that reenlisted with $50 and a 60-day furlough. Even more extreme, the Confederacy created the very first draft in American history on March 28, 1862. This required three years of service for those men selected between the ages of 18 and 35. They would broaden the conscription qualifications later in the war to include ages 17 to 50.
There were a ton of exceptions within the act that made it possible for men of certain occupations to stay home. Or, if one could afford it, a substitute could be paid and sent in their stead. Later, an amendment was given to this act called the “Twenty-Negro Law.” This provision exempted one white man for every plantation with twenty or more slaves so men who would leave wives and children unprotected could have an excuse to stay home. Confederate Congress rescinded the substitution rule in December of 1863, then made those who had provided substitutes eligible for military service again. It was the hope of the government that the draft, which resembled slavery in the eyes of the southerners, would motivate more men to volunteer instead. Psychology at its finest.
Efforts in the North were met with just as much resentment. The Enrollment Act, 12 Stat. 731, enacted March 3, 1863, also known as the Civil War Military Draft Act, provided that all unmarried male citizens, as well as aliens who had declared their intention of becoming citizens, between 20 and 45 were eligible to be drafted into the Union army. No occupational exemptions were given, but those who were wealthy enough could pay a commutation fee of $300 or hire themselves a substitute. The fee of $300 was equivalent at the time to approximately $50,000 earned by an unskilled worker in 2018. Outrage over the “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” exploded in New York in the summer of 1863, as well as other places across the Union.
Substitutes were not looked on favorably in either army, though they comprised less then 10% of the muster roll in the late-war years. A colonel of the 61st New York who earned a medal of honor at the battle of Chancellorsville sums up the attitude towards these draftees and substitutes. “Nearly all that have been sent here are substitutes and are miserable surly rough fellows and are without patriotism or honor… They seem to have no interest in the cause and you would be surprised to notice the difference between them and the old veterans who have endured the hardships and borne the brunt of the battles for the last two years.”
The substitute system became abused by what became “bounty jumpers”. The men would serve as a substitute, collect the money that they were paid for their enlistment, join under a false name, and then desert the army to do it all again. Men would make careers out of this practice.
For the Necessity – But for many, patriotism, money, and country were secondary reasons for joining the army. On both sides, the matters of duty and manhood dictated their decisions. Again, these notions are not something we typically think about in the 21st century. Definitions of both have changed dramatically just in the last few decades. For the men of the 19th century, however, duty, honor, and manhood were everything. The last thing any of them wanted was to be branded a coward for shirking their duty, fleeing from the fight, or objecting to playing their part in what had always traditionally been a man’s role in society. It wasn’t just an option to fight, but an obligation to themselves and their reputations.
A sergeant of the 24th Mississippi declared, “I much reather be numbered amongst the slain than those that stay at home for it will be a brand upon their name as long as southern lives.”
A man of the 20th Illinois wrote, “I determined to stand up to duty and preserve my manhood and honor let come what may.”
Of the 8th Missouri, one soldier said, “I would be less than a man if in any way I fell short of the discharge of duty at my country’s call.”
Countless more Union voices came forward with the same declarations. “I should be ashamed of myself if I didn’t do something.” – “I would sooner loose my life then have my children ashamed of their Father.” – “If I should come home alive, and live to be old, I want to be able to say that I fought willingly for my country and not have my name branded as a coward.” – “We all of us have a duty to perform in this life… My honor is now bound up with the Army.”
While the selection above is just a small sample of the words they left behind, from it we can gather much information about the attitudes and values of 19th century culture. Whatever their reasons, whatever their motives, over 600,000 men sacrificed part or all of themselves in the Civil War. Those who served, whether Confederate or Union, became immortalized in American history. A historian once stated this poignant truth, “Self-preservation is the first law of nature. The man who does not dread to die or to be mutilated is a lunatic. The man who, dreading these things, still faces them for the sake of honor and duty is a hero.”
To read more about the motives of Civil War soldiers, please read:
“For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War” by James M. McPherson
For more about Conscription and Drafts during the Civil War: