The American Civil War engulfed the American continent from 1861 to 1865. The titanic contest was fought for a variety of reasons, differing depending on its participants’ viewpoints. Politically, it was a struggle to preserve the Union and tear it asunder, limit the institution of slavery and champion it…and over time, to abolish slavery and preserve it.
Yet the political causes which spawn wars are not always the motivating reasons for civilians to support them. As hundreds of thousands of young men rushed to their respective banners in 1861 and ‘62, they did so for a plethora of reasons and in a variety of circumstances. This is the first of two posts that will explore why and how soldiers, both North and South, enlisted—in their own words. We start with men from the North.
In his journal, twenty-four year old Michigan farmer James Henry Avery expressed the patriotic stirrings that led him, and many thousands more, to enter the military in August, 1862:
In the summer of 1862…all was excitement, for it was then seen that a mighty struggle was to be undergone, to maintain our government, and it was the duty of every man who could bear arms to assist to the utmost of his ability, either in the field or at home…And all we asked was that our friends at home would see that our families did not suffer; and we would risk our lives at the front in the smoke of battle to save for them our glorious country; and as this was the feelings of the writer [Avery], we will take it also for the true feelings of all who enlisted. The Star-Spangled Banner must and shall be saved, and again planted where it had been torn down by the hands of traitors.
Avery stayed true to his patriotic proclamations and enlisted in the 5th Michigan Cavalry. Young James was incorrect, however, is his assumption that the call to duty was so clear-cut a decision for everybody.
William B. Lapham was a bachelor living in Bryant’s Pond, Maine when the war broke out. A surgeon of some skill, Lapham had to take many things into consideration before ultimately enlisting in the 23rd Maine Infantry. He recalls these deciding factors in his memoirs:
I had been a strong partisan in the campaign that resulted in the election of Lincoln, and I believed that when the overthrow of the government over which he had been called to preside was threatened, it was my duty as well as that of others, to rally to his support.
Mr. Lapham had more personal—and proud—reasons for enlisting beyond politics, however:
I had talked war in the town where I lived, and expressed myself determined to take a hand in it. I had boarded for some years at a hotel kept by two Democrats…In speaking of going into the army, they had told me that I should really sacrifice nothing by going; that I would go in my profession; would not be exposed to danger, and would really be professionally benefited by the experience I should have. It was largely on account of this talk which had been repeated again and again, that I determined to go in some different capacity than my profession.
Determined to show his Democratic neighbors up (and prove his willingness to endanger himself for his cause), William Lapham did not want to serve as an army surgeon. Lapham would have to wait sometime before entering, however, as he “had a father and mother somewhat advanced in years who had for several years depended almost entirely upon me for support.” Only when the opportunity presented itself did Lapham finally enlist—true to his word, he refused to enter the army as a surgeon, instead serving as an officer in the 23rd Maine.
While James Henry Avery enlisted as a patriot, and William Lapham enlisted to support Lincoln (and snub his neighbors), others enlisted in reaction to news regarding the wars successes—and failures. In his reminiscences, H.W. Bolton of Maine recounts his conversation with a friend that led to his enlistment:
[Bolton:] “But what’s the news?”
“Oh, things look pretty blue, I reckon Lee’ll get into Washington.”
[Bolton:] “Why, look here…t’would be an awful thing to have Washington captured, and Old Abe take prisoner; I believe I’ll go. What say?”
“But how will Mrs. B take it?”
[Bolton:] “Well, she said this morning that if she were a man she’d go. Now I don’t propose to have her feel that she is more patriotic than I am.”
While H.W. Bolton may have polished his conversation up a bit, he confesses to his diary the difficulty he faced in telling his wife that he had joined the army for three years or the duration of the war:
Then came the hardest thing to do of all; simply to tell the wife and baby what I had done. What will they say—how will they take it? But to my surprise my wife said, ‘You have down just what I should do if I were in your place’.
For H.W. Bolton, it was the Union’s fading fortunes and the threat on Washington in late 1862, along with perhaps his wife’s expectant patriotism, that spurred him to enlist in the 16th Maine Infantry.
Telling, or perhaps convincing, loved ones that going off to war was the right decision could be painful. Nineteen year-old Elisha Hunt Rhodes confided to this diary how he struggled to convince his mother, who was a widow with four children, to allow him to enter the fray:
Saturday night I visited my home and laid the matter before my mother. She at once refused her consent, and giving as a reason that I was her only support, I was forced to promise that I would remain at home until such time as she might consent to my enlisting. They next Sunday was a sorrowful one at our home. My mother went about with tears in her eyes, while I felt disappointment I could not express and therefore nursed my sorrow in silence. Sunday night after I had retired, my mother came to my room and with a spirit worthy of a Spartan mother of old said: ‘My son, other mothers must make sacrifices and why should not I? If you feel that it is your duty to enlist, I will give my consent.’
The next day, Elisha Rhodes enlisted in the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry.
Patriotic, neighborly and familial emotions all played a part in encouraging (or discouraging) men to enlist. Powerful too was the simple desire to not be left out. Augustus D. Ayling penned in his diary on April 16th, 1861:
I was a clerk in the office of J.C. Ayer & Company, Lowell, Massachusetts, where I had been employed for several years, working up from boy in the bindery to assistant bookkeeper. There had been a good deal of talk and discussion among my friends and in the office over the political situation, but few, if any, believe there would be war. Today, however, things looked more serious, and Lowell is full of excitement as several city companies (4) left today for Boston to join the rest of the Sixth Regiment, when they are to go to Washington. I went to the railroad station to see them off…Wanted to go with them awfully and should have gone if mother had been home.
The next day Ayling confessed, “Was blue and disappointed and felt like anything but work because I could not go with the “boys” yesterday. Am determined to go with the next company that is called for.” Augustus need not have been blue, for in a few days he would enlist in a militia company and would soon enough serve in the 29th Massachusetts Infantry.
Rice Bull wasn’t left out when he enlisted in the 123rd New York Infantry. With his neighbor and school friend Phineas Spencer, the pair “agreed that we would go together and stand by one another.” Bull’s parents reluctantly accepted his decision. “My parents were at first loath to give their consent, but they realized that it was a call to duty that could not be disregarded. After grave and prayerful consideration, they tearfully consented to my going.” Upon arriving at his company’s camp, Bull discovered that they were still lacking some twenty men; Bull went back home and recruited another 14 for the 123rd NY. With friends and neighbors enlisting, it was hard for others not to be swept along.
Of course, not everyone’s motives for enlisting was pure. Ovando J. Hollister of the 1st Colorado Volunteer Infantry recalls how one company of his regiment was raised:
In the latter part of July, 1861, three men were sitting at dinner, round a rough table in rougher country-the mining district of South Clear Creek…mining at that time was not exceedingly inviting or profitable…[the luck] of our friends was nearly empty, and as this spasmodic gold-digging was intensely disagreeable, they were discussing their bread and beef and the chances of “raising the wind” in some easier way…Casting their eyes about for a new lode, the state of the country, plunged in a gigantic civil war, attracted their attention, and the idea of taking advantage of the patriotic uprising of the nation’s heart…to raise a company of volunteers for the war, thus securing commissions for themselves, struck them as being a lode, which, once open, might be worked with ease and profit.
For those three rough and tumble miners, raising a company of volunteers struck them as an easier path to success than scraping the dirt in search of the rare glimmer of gold.
Be it patriotic stirrings in the chest, the chance to prove oneself to others, seemingly dire war news, the enlistment of friends or family, or even selfish ambition…thousands of young men and boys from across the country answered the call to arms in 1861 and 1862. Despite their varying personal motivations, they were fighting on behalf of the reunification of the Union and, over time, the abolition of slavery in the South. Their sacrifice and courage over hundreds of countless battlefields, both famous and forgotten, helped to both preserve and transform the United States. But we should also not overlook why they themselves, as human beings, decided to fight. Their reasons represent the wide ranges of courage, community, ambition, pride, and belief within the human condition.
Zac Cowsert received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Political Science from Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport. He is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University focusing in U.S. History and the American Civil War. His studies and research often explore the Trans-Mississippi Theater. ©
Sources and Further Reading:
Bauer, K. Jack, ed. Soldiering: The Civil War Diary of Rice C. Bull, 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry. San Rafael, California: Presidio Press, 1977.
Bolton, H.W. Personal Reminiscences of the Late War. H. G. Jackson, ed. Chicago, 1892.
Herberger, Charles F., ed. A Yankee at Arms: The Diary of Lieutenant Augustus D. Ayling, 29th Massachusetts Volunteers. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.
Hollister, Ovando J. Colorado Volunteers in New Mexico, 1862. Richard Harwell, ed. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1962.
Lapham, William B. My Recollections of the War of the Rebellion. Augusta, Maine: Burleigh & Flynt, 1892.
Rhodes, Elisha Hunt. All for the Union: A History of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers Infantry in the War of the Great Rebellion. Lincoln, Rhode Island: Andrew Mowbray Inc., 1985.
Wittenberg, Eric J., ed. Under Custer’s Command: The Civil War Journal of James Henry Avery. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2000.