Moreover, the United States had only a small professional army by European standards, and after 1861, that army was reduced by about half as southerners resigned to fight for the CSA. As a result, both sides relied heavily on militia troops. Militia units, as was learned in the Revolution and the War of 1812, had important strengths and failings. Village militia units, comprised of all men 15 through 50, mustered once a year, trained and drilled irregularly, and provided their own weapons. The militia forces had scored some remarkable victories in the colonial-era Indian wars, the French and Indian War, and contributed heavily to the victories at Concord, Fort Ticonderoga, Kaskaskias, Vincennes, and King’s Mountain.
However, American militamen were notorious for leaving the front the moment their terms of service were up; they felt no obligation to fight far from home, and often refused to march outside their own county; and the units elected their own officers up to the rank of captain. All this placed a premium on an economy of life in the short-term, but to the detriment of strategic objectives. Fiercely independent and strongly identified with their state or region, the units were only “citizen soldiers” in one sense—they fought like wildcats when the threat to their own interests was immediate. However, they were not the essence of what Victor Hanson identifies as the “western way of war” in which free men form highly disciplined bodies that adhere rigorously to formation and rank. Militia units thus lacked the critical discipline, professionalism, and experience that regular soldiers possessed, leading Samuel Clemens to refer to his militia company as a “cattle herd,” in which an argument broke out between a corporal and sergeant—neither of whom knew who outranked the other! To overcome these weaknesses, state militia were retained intact as units, ensuring that Ohioans, Mainers, and New Yorkers fought together. This enhanced unit cohesion and loyalty, but also produced tragic results when the order of battle hurled the manhood of entire towns into combat. As a result, some towns saw an entire generation disappear in four years of war.
The militia/regular army volunteer units, as historian James G. Randall noted, became “largely a personal thing.” in which “anyone who wished could advertise to . . . ‘raise a company’ . . . and invite ‘all willing to join to come on a certain morning to some saloon, hotel, or public hall.’” Units that emerged predictably had flashy names and even glitzier uniforms, including the “Buena Vista Guards,” the “New York Fire Zouaves,” the “Polish Legion,” the “St. Patrick’s Brigade,” the “Garibaldi Guards,” and (predictably) the “Lincoln Guards.” Some, such as the Wisconsin “Black Hats,” also known as the Iron Brigade (called by historian T. Harry Williams “the best fighting brigade in the army)” were known for their headgear, while New York Zouave units copied the French army’s baggy red trousers. Some of the more extremely decorative uniforms soon gave way to more practical battlefield gear, but the enthusiasm did not dim. The 6th Massachusetts, a regiment of 850 men, marched to Washington only 48 hours after Lincoln’s call for volunteers, and between the time the President issued the call for 75,000 volunteers in April, and the time Congress convened in July, the northern army swelled by more than 215,000 over its pre-Sumter troop levels.
Indeed, Massachusetts outdid herself. A state of 1.25 million people marched six regiments (or roughly 72,000 men) to war by July, and promised eleven more, a total far exceeding the state’s proportional commitment. Yet this enthusiasm itself came with a cost. Instead of too few men, the Union’s greatest problem at the outset of the conflict was, as Secretary of War Cameron complained, “receiving troops faster than [the government] can provide for them.” When the first weary soldiers marched into Washington to defend the capitol, all that awaited them was salted red herring, soda crackers, and coffee made in rusty cauldrons. Those who marched to the front were more fortunate than others crammed into coastal vessels and steamed down from New England port cities. Regardless of their mode of transportation, most of the young men who donned the uniform of either the North or South had never been more than 20 miles from home, nor had they ever ridden a steamboat. Many had never seen a large city.
Training was another matter. Militia units generally proved unreliable, but whatever their weaknesses each side was equally affected. Confederate militia certainly were no better trained or motivated than Union militiamen. Given the rapid onset of hostilities, the armies had no choice but to rely heavily on militias in the early part of the war, when there were a scant 16,000 regular army troops garrisoned throughout the United States. (Likewise, the small United States Navy reported only 42 of its 90 ships ready for action, although the numbers of ships also would skyrocket in the four years of war.)
Command in the Union Army was ravaged by the departure of a large number of the U.S. Army’s officer corps, both active and retired, who left for the Confederate cause. Indeed, from 1776 to 1861 (and even to the present), southerners filled the ranks of America’s professional fighting forces in disproportionate numbers in relation to their population. Southern soldiers outnumbered northerners significantly in the Mexican-American War, and West Point graduated a higher rate of southern 2nd lieutenants than northern. Southern officers, such as Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Braxton Bragg, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, and Robert E. Lee reneged on their oath to protect the United States from enemies “foreign and domestic” to fight in grey. In all, 313 U.S. Army officers resigned to join the Confederacy, while 767 regular army officers stayed to form the new Union cadre. Lee was especially reluctant, having been offered the position of commander-in-chief of the Union Army by Lincoln. Yet he could not persuade himself to raise his hand against Virginia, and reluctantly joined the Confederates. A more touching departure occurred with the resignation of Joseph E. Johnston, who met with Secretary of War Simon Cameron in April 1861. He wept as he said, “I must go. Though I am resigning my position, I trust I may never draw my sword against the old flag.”
More than manpower and brains left the Union cause. Confederates stormed armories and arsenals. They captured the valuable Norfolk docks and shipyards, taking nine warships into custody at the Gosport Navy Yard. Although the New York and Pennsylvania went up in flames, the Confederates salvaged a third vessel, the Merrimac. Had the Union commander of the navy yard given the order, the steam-powered Merrimac could have escaped entirely, but he buckled to the pressure of the Rebels, providing the hull for what would become one of the world’s first two ironclads.
These losses, however, were minimal next to the command challenges to Lincoln’s army caused by the Confederate defections. Many of the new Union officers had little or no antebellum military experience, but were civilians who were appointed because of their political connections. Northern generals such as Benjamin Butler, Francis Blair, and Carl Schurz, who reflected certain constituencies in the Union (Democrats, Irish- and German-Americans) received appointments based solely on their access to influential politicians. They gained reputations for military ineptitude, but the career soldiers had little choice but to train them to do the best job possible. Contributing to the inexperience, Gen. Winfield Scott, the 74-year-old General-in-Chief, refused to allow furloughs for younger officers to train militias.
Supplementing the white militias and regular army enlistments, in 1862, the Union allowed free blacks to join segregated infantry units. Thousands enlisted, at first receiving only $7 per month as compared to $13 allowed for a white private. Two years later, with Lincoln’s support, Congress passed the enrollment Act which authorized equal pay for black soldiers. Even for white regulars, however, a military career was not exactly lucrative. Prior to the war, a general made under $3,500 a year (compared to a Senator’s $5,000), while a captain received $768 annually. Only the engineering corps seemed exempt from the low pay, attracting many of the better officers, including Robert E. Lee, who directed port improvements along the Mississippi River.
Like the North, the South hoped to avoid a draft, but reality set in. The Confederate congress enacted a Conscription Act in 1862, even before the Union, establishing the first military draft in American history. All able-bodied males 18-35 had to serve for three years, although wartime demands soon expanded the ages from 17-50. Exemptions were granted postal employees, CSA officials, railroad workers, religious ministry, and those employed in manufacturing plants. Draftees could also hire substitutes, of which there were 70,000 in the South (compared with 118,000 in the North). Given the higher rates of northern regular enlistments, though, it is apparent that southerners purchased their way out of combat, or avoided going to war, at a higher overall rate than their counterparts in blue. Conscription, to many southerners, violated the “let-me-alone” principle they seemed to be fighting for, leading to criticisms that it “was an assault on state sovereignty by a despotic regime.”
1. Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (New York: Doubleday, 2001).
2. Twain, “Private History,” 147-151.
3. Quoted in Randall, Civil War and Reconstruction, 265. This remains the best, most direct treatment of the American Civil War, outclassing later, more “pop” interpretations such as McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.
4. Randall, Civil War and Reconstruction, 265.
5. See the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion [henceforth called OR], 70 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1891), 3:i and 303.
6. Nevins, War for the Union, 108-109.
7. Randall, Civil War and Reconstruction, 266.
8. Harper’s Magazine, September 1855, 552-555.
9. Boyer, Enduring Vision, 407.