Civil War Enlistment

William Tecumseh Sherman, Union General

Sherman was keenly aware of the severity of the impending national crisis.

Rally ‘Round the Flag
Union Recruitment During the Civil War

One of the most challenging tasks of a nation at war is turning its average citizens, its bakers, farmers, lawyers, and college professors into soldiers. This was especially the case at the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, as the nation’s already small professional army was divided by the same sectional loyalties that split the nation in two. Many former classmates from the United States Military Academy at West Point would soon be facing each other across one of the hundred battlefields that are the legacy of the Civil War. Under these officers would be young men from every walk of life who rallied to the cause of their state and nation on both sides of the sectarian divide.

Even as the states of the South began to talk of seceding from the Union, President Lincoln, the newly elected Republican president, did very little to prepare the North for war. It seemed inconceivable that the South would resort to force of arms against the federal government. In the past, during the secession crisis of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the threat of federal force was enough to bring South Carolina back from the brink of rebellion. Even William Tecumseh Sherman, at this point a retired Army officer visiting the White House, commented on the lack of preparedness and understanding in the Lincoln administration, which he recorded in his 1875 memoirs.

"Ah!" said Mr. Lincoln, "how are they getting along down there [Louisiana]?" I said, "They think they are getting along swimmingly—they are preparing for war." "Oh, well!" said he, "I guess we'll manage to keep house." I was silenced, said no more to him, and we soon left. I was sadly disappointed, and remember that I broke out on John, d—ning the politicians generally, saying, "You have got things in a hell of a fig, and you may get them out as you best can," adding that the country was sleeping on a volcano that might burst forth at any minute[.]

Fort Sumter, South Carolina

The attack on Fort Sumter demonstrated that the South was willing to resort to war.

These tensions boiled over in final days of 1860, as the state of South Carolina formally seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. As the militia of South Carolina began its bombardment of the federal installation at Fort Sumter, situated in Charleston Harbor, the course of the war was set. Though no lives were lost in this attack, it showed the President that the Southern states would be willing to use the force of arms to achieve their goals. War was now unavoidable.

Secretary of War Simon Cameron

Secretary of War Simon Cameron readily implemented the massive recruiting effort commanded by President Lincoln.

April 15, 1861 marks the beginning of any major Union preparations for the reality of what would become the Civil War. On this day, no longer operating under the notion that there would be a quick, peaceful resolution to the secession crisis, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to join the Union army. The following appeal was issued by the Secretary of War.

"SIR,—Under the Act of Congress ' for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections; repel invasions,' etc., approved February 28, 1795, I have the honor to request your Excellency to cause to be immediately detached from the militia of your State the quota designated in the table below, to serve as infantry or riflemen for the period of three months, unless sooner discharged.

" Your Excellency will please communicate to me the time at or about which your quota will be expected at its rendezvous, as it will be met as soon as practicable by an officer or officers to muster it into the service and pay of the United States. At the same time the oath of fidelity to the United States will be administered to every officer and man.

" The mustering officer will be instructed to receive no man under the rank of commissioned officer who is in years apparently over forty-five or under eighteen, or who is not in physical strength and vigor."

A Civil War military recruiting poster from New York City.

A military recruiting poster from New York City, part of the increased recruitment efforts after the start of the Civil War.

As the war progressed, these ninety day enlistments were found to be woefully inadequate. Many leaders on both sides of the conflict believed that a single, decisive battle would be enough to end the war and pave the way for negotiations. This was not the case and the Civil War would drag on for four more bloody years. The Union Army, realizing the conflict was becoming a protracted fight, began to increase its recruitment efforts, looking to bolster its ranks as these short-term enlistments expired.

Irish emigrants boarding ships bound for the New York.

Irish people boarding ships bound for New York.  Many immigrants would serve in state militias within the Union during the Civil War.

Unlike in the Confederacy, there was never a true manpower shortage for the North as it was a major hub for European immigration into the United States. The ports of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston all served as entry points for the first major wave of European immigration that began in the 1840's. During this period up through the end of the Civil War, the two largest groups of immigrants entering these ports were the Germans and the Irish. These troops served both in specifically ethnic regiments and in regular line regiments, usually as part of state militias that were called up into federal service. It is important to note that despite the prevalence of immigrant soldiers in the Union Army, a majority of the federal forces, numbering 1,000,000 men, were native-born Americans.

Germans departing for the US on ships.

Germans fled to the United States in droves in the 1840s.  Many German immigrants fought with Union forces in state militias.

Germans, by and large, came to the United States as a result of the political unrest in the German states in the 1840s. This unrest exacerbated the already growing tensions between industrial and agrarian lifestyles which were at odds in a newly industrialized Germany. Unlike nations like France, Germany was not a single nation-state but was a confederation of semi-autonomous German states, like Baden, Prussia, and Austria. In 1848, these German states were in an unenviable position. In the previous years there had been a cholera epidemic in the state of Prussia and widespread agricultural failures throughout Germany. When the Revolution of 1848 to unify Germany as a single political entity collapsed, many proponents of the revolution fled Germany, seeking refuge in the United States. These German immigrants often settled in agrarian regions of the country, seeking the life of a farmer which many had lost to Germany's industrialization. By the end of the war, approximately 200,000 native Germans fought in the Union Army.

Irish folk at an emigration depot in Ireland in 1856.

Irish folk at an emigration depot in Ireland in 1856.  Famine and British oppression resulted in large numbers of Irish leaving their home country for the United States.

The second largest ethnic group to wear the blue of the Union army was the Irish whose immigration coincided with that of the Germans. Much like the Germans who fled after the failed 1848 Revolution, the motivations for many Irish immigrants were both political and practical. Many discontent with political situation, namely British oppression of the native Irish Catholics. Many hoped for a chance to escape the harsh British Penal Laws which restricted the rights of the Catholics who made up over 70% of Ireland’s population. At the same time, from 1846 through the mid-1850's, the potato crop in Ireland suffered a blight known as Phyophthora infestans. This water fungus was transported to Ireland from the Eastern United States, where a potato crop had been infected in the previous year. By the harvest of 1846, three quarters of the Irish potato crop had failed, leading to widespread starvation among the rural Irish. Faced with a harsh, repressive government and the prospect of starvation, many emigrated to the United States, settling in the major Northern cities. Despite the popular notion of the Irish being only brigaded together in the famous Union Irish Brigade, nearly 170,000 Irishmen served throughout the Union Army in many various regiments.

A Civil War recruiting poster advertising large cash compensations for married men enlisting.

Civil War recruiting posters advertised large cash compensations for married men enlisting.  Monetary rewards were one of several reasons recent immigrants took to military service.

When the war broke out, many young Irish and German men joined the Union Army for a variety of reasons. Many sought acceptance in American society through military service. The political climate in the years leading up to the Civil War had been decidedly anti-immigrant and many hoped that heroism on the battlefield would ease these tensions. Others fought out of a sense of patriotic idealism, hoping to preserve the Union and in some cases, especially among the German population, to abolish slavery. Finally, many fought for simple, practical motives. The Union Army offered employment to many who did not have jobs and also gave those who enlisted a large cash bounty which could be used to support their families. Regardless of their reasons, these immigrant soldiers made up a large portion of the Union Army, serving in every major theater of operations throughout the war.

A photographic portrait of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass criticized the ban on African-Americans serving in the Union military.

Immigrants were not the only men who joined the Army to gain their civil rights and recognition as members of American society. At the outbreak of the Civil War, it was still US Army policy to ban African-Americans from serving in the regular army going back to 1792. As the lists of casualties in these early battles began to grow, Union generals began to request more men than regular enlistments alone could provide. The North needed more men.

"Our Presidents, Governors, Generals and Secretaries are calling, with almost frantic vehemence, for men.-"Men! men! send us men!" they scream, or the cause of the Union is gone...and yet these very officers, representing the people and the Government, steadily, and persistently refuse to receive the very class of men which have a deeper interest in the defeat and humiliation of the rebels than all others."
– Frederick Douglass
A photo of African American Union soldiers during the Civil War.

African Americans were able to enlist in the Union Army only after the Emancipation Proclamation.

On July 17, 1862, Congress passed two acts allowing the enlistment of African Americans, but official enrollment occurred only after the September 1862 issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Eventually fourteen regiments of African Americans were raised for Federal service during the Civil War. Despite their newfound right to enlist in the Army, these African-American soldiers still faced a great deal of discrimination. Their pay was set at $10 a month for a private while a white private was paid $14. Also, it was uncommon for African-Americans to be given ranks as officers. Instead, these African-American troops were led by white officers because many believed African-Americans were unable to fight as well as white soldiers. The exemplary service of these African-American regiments would eventually silence their critics. These troops demonstrated extreme courage under fire, with twenty five African American soldiers eventually being awarded the Medal of Honor, the military's highest decoration for valor.

Check out the following links for more in-depth discussion of African-American, German, and Irish service in the Union Army and keep checking back for more information about the Civil War, 150 years later:

African-American Troops and the Union Army

German Troops and the Union Army

Irish Troops and the Union Army

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