Recruiting Fever, Early Days
Abraham Lincoln called on the states to send seventy-five thousand militia into Federal service for three months to restore order.
So what was the mood of the new soldiers? Well they joined up with a feeling of joy, the call to arms looked like a call to high adventure. Except for a few veterans of the war with Mexico, no one knew what an organised war was like.
The state of Michigan, a week after Fort Sumter was enlisting volunteers as fast as the men could be sworn in. The legislature, had gaily refused funds for equipment, so the funds were raised by popular subscription - eight one-thousand dollars in a few days, in the little city of Detroit alone.
War was all music and flags and cheering crowds, the bands played "Yankee Doodle", and "The Girl I Left Behind Me", and "Dixie", not yet a southern war song - Dixie piped many a Yankee regiment off to war.
In Iowa twenty times as many men as could be taken came forward. Because this frontier state had few railroads, many men came in by farm wagons or foot, some taking ten days for the trip. The men who's primitive frontier diet consisted mostly of salt pork and corn bread, became sick from eating food that was too rich for them. Everywhere there were more men than the army was prepared to take. A number of railroads in Indiana announced that they would carry all soldiers free. The training that these volunteers received was often very sketchy. In a New York regiment, one recruit who thought that drill had gone on long enough on a warm spring day, called out to his Captain, "Say Tom, let's quit this darn foolin' and go over to the Sutlers".
A Massachusetts veteran remembered, his Company drill was running around the old town hall in West Newbury, yelling like devils and firing at an imaginary foe.
Men in a Wisconsin Company were quartered in a small-town hotel. They were in the habit of emerging at midnight, whooping and laughing, to hold a night-shift drill in the town's main street. There were meetings in the town hall or village grove, with music and speeches. Girls would urge their swains to enlist. Wisconsin soldiers remembered one meeting at which a girl cried out to her escort in a voice all could hear, "John, if you don't enlist, I'll never let you kiss me again as long as I live! Now mind you sir, I mean what I say". It is not recorded if he enlisted or not. Most recruits were fascinated by the lights-out ritual. At nine o'clock in the evening, the regimental band would play "tattoo", after which roll would be called. Half an hour later came "taps" which meant everyone must be in bed with lights out, and "taps" according to old-army procedure was given by a drummer, not a bugler. In the silent darkening camp a lone drummer would stand at the head of the regimental street and tap out the single drumbeats to a certain rhythm. This was always followed and the men fitted words to it: - "Go to bed Tom! Go to bed Tom! Go to bed, go to bed, go to bed Tom!
Abraham Lincoln, His Military Service,
. . . and the attitude of the Civil War Soldier
The first volunteers enlisted for ninety days only - technically state militia. On May 3rd, President Lincoln called for three-year volunteers.
So what were the volunteers like? Boys from small towns and cornfields could not make themselves look upon their officers with awe. A Lieutenant or Colonel could exercise little control just by virtue of his shoulder straps. He had to have solid qualities of leadership.
It never entered the heads of most of the volunteers that a free American citizen surrendered part of his freedom by joining the army. Shoulder straps waived, a private was ready at the drop of a hat to thrash his Commander, a feat that occurred more than once.
In Missouri, a volunteer regiment looked on in horror as a man in a regular regiment was "bucked and gagged". This free and easy quality the civil war soldier never lost. Although less marked in eastern regiments than those in the west, it varied from regiment to regiment for better or worse. They could be lead by the right man, but they could not often be driven. Their members straggled freely, foraged and looted, sometimes deserted in droves, but they carried a heavy load which fell hard upon the privates of both armies.
A man who understood this on the Federal side was their Commander in Chief. Abraham Lincoln had been a Captain of a volunteer Company in the Black Hawk War. A hard set of men who cried out "Go to Hell!" in response to the first order Lincoln gave them. Lincoln was ordered by Court-Martial to carry a wooden sword for two days, because his Company robbed the regimental whiskey cache and got drunk.
To keep his men from murdering an Indian peddler, Lincoln had to take off his coat and offer to thrash each soldier personally. When in congress, Lincoln made a speech ridiculing his own military experience and his pretensions to command. The men of both sides who enlisted, Confederate or Union were very much alike, serving along side their family, friends, teachers, doctors and even priests.
Pvt. A G Spencer, 1st Maryland Inf.
Extracts from This Hallowed Ground by Bruce Catton.
The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, June 2000