Today, we are pleased to welcome guest author Jim Taub.
As Joseph Polley, a sergeant of the 4th Texas Infantry, moved through the dense Georgia underbrush, the sounds and smells of battle overwhelmed his senses. The cracking of musketry and thunder of the artillery could be heard to their front. As the Texans began passing wounded soldiers of General Bragg’s Army of Tennessee near the clearing of the Viniard Field, the Western Rebels began taunting the recent arrivals from Virginia. Sgt. Polley reported hearing:
“them fellers out thar you ar goin’ up again, ain’t none of them blue bellied, white-livered Yanks an’ sassidge-eatin’ forrin hirelins’ you have in Virginny that’ll run quick at the snap of a cap- they are Western fellers, an’ they’ll mighty quick give you a bellyful of fightin.”
The mettle of the Federal soldier of the Western Theatre was something that was never in question. The man that Polley was passing might have been shouting the warning to the Texans to poke fun at their recent arrival transfer from the Army of Northern Virginia; however, there absolutely was a feeling by the men going into that fight near Chickamauga Creek that they weren’t fighting the “Yankees” of the Army of the Potomac anymore.
Regional pride is a big thing in the United States. Let’s face it; its pop, not soda, the best kind of hot dog is the Chicago kind and as the Western soldier of the Union Army felt and was certain he was better than those coming from the east. Historian Bell Irvin Wiley in his timeless work The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union explains their feelings perfectly when he wrote that “Yanks from Ohio, Michigan or Kansas denounced those of Massachusetts, New York, or Pennsylvania as effete, liquor-soaked, money-mad dandies – “bandbox” troops, fit only for parade and garrison.”
The soldiers of the western states, those west of the Appalachian Mountains and making up the majority of the regiments within the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of the Tennessee, also formed some of the elite formations of the primarily eastern Army of the Potomac. Many Easterners had not yet seen the men of the western states who were on average taller, comprised of native born Americans than those of Scandinavian and German descent, and as the soldiers themselves believed they were better than those from the eastern states. When General Gibbon took command of what would become known as “The Iron Brigade of the West”, a unit comprised of Westerners serving in the Army of the Potomac he hoped that his men who had crossed the Appalachians could “emulate the gallant deeds of their brave Statesmen in the West, and prove to them that the heroism displayed at Fort Donelson and Pittsburg Landing, can be rivaled by their brothers, who have come East, to fight for the cause of the ‘Union.” One regular Artillerist of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery also said of the men of the Iron Brigade that “They were ready to fight anything on earth at any time or in any shape!”
The Western presence in the Army of the Potomac was so important to the men of the Western regiments, that they tried their hardest to stay within the same brigade or division as a fellow western unit. In the example of the previously mentioned Iron Brigade, by February of 1865, General Meade under orders from General Grant began to detach depleted regiments for home front service. Included in the list of units chosen to leave the Army of the Potomac were the 2nd Wisconsin, 6th Wisconsin, and the 24th Michigan, all of the Iron Brigade. When they heard of the news not only were the men of the brigade distraught, but their divisional commander General Samuel Crawford wrote General Meade pleading that; “If Bragg’s brigade may not return, I earnestly desire to retain the Twenty-Fourth Michigan, with the Sixth and Seventh Wisconsin. I have a surplus of regiments which can much better be spared…. The three regiments mentioned have served together from the beginning of the war, and are identified with the Army of the Potomac. They desire to remain and I ask the privilege of sending other regiments in their place.” In a much more direct letter to corps commander General Gouverneur K. Warren, Crawford wrote; “I have many regiments better fitted for service out of this army… and have asked that I be allowed to… retain my Western regiments.”
While the fighting abilities of the Union soldier from any state were not superior to that of another, the sense of supposed superiority created clashes not between Federal and Rebel, but between Westerner and Easterner. Henry Whipple of Wisconsin said of the Easterners brigaded with his unit in Louisiana that: “They and the Western boys fight any time we meet. I think either side would rather shoot at each other than the Johnnies.” When fists were not being thrown about between the two groups, insults were. When the XI and XII Corps of the Army of the Potomac moved west to assist the combined forces of the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of the Tennessee under General Grant at Chattanooga it could be said that they were assaulted by just as many insults from the Western Federals as balls and shells from the Confederates. One instance supposedly occurred when a lean and hungry Sergeant William McGuffy of the predominantly Irish 90th Illinois came upon newly arrived soldiers of the XI Corps. As the starving, and poorly supplied soldier, just relieved from the siege of the town approached the eastern arrivals a sentry called out to him.
“Halt! What Regiment is that?”
“The 90th Illinois- Irish Legion”
“What Corps do you belong to?”
“What’s the badge of your corps?”
“Badge! What the blazes is that?”
“What do you wear to distinguish yourself from other troops? Our corps, the 11th wears a crescent-a half moon, -the 12th corps wears a star! What do you wear?”
“Yes, I know what ye mane now; moon and stars! Be jabbers! Ye needed tem both to show ye the way back from Chancellorsville; badge it is!”
As Sgt. McGuffy continued the insult to the men whom he had the opinion of as having been routed from the Battle of Chancellorsville the previous May, he turned round slapping his cartridge box and declaring “That’s the badge of the 15th corps, forty rounds of cartridge!”
Those Western soldiers in the Army of the Tennessee or the Army of the Cumberland felt high on the pedestal of Union forces in particular due to the early war record of the Army of the Potomac. The defeat after Chancellorsville caused Benjamin W. Baker of the 25th Illinois to write to his mother: “The excitement over the late battle of the Rhapahannock is subsiding in measure. We are disappointed to some extent, though not so much perhaps as we would have been if the Potomac army had never been beaten before, but anyway we expected something of Fighting Joe [Hooker], & we got something, i.e. a good drubbing.”
Whatever army they served in the Western Federals of the American Civil War felt as though there was something which made them better than their eastern counterparts. This may not be 100% true, however it is important as historians for us to notice these feelings and how they were used to motivate and instill pride in the soldiers. Whatever their thoughts on their comrades, the Wolverines, Buckeyes, Hoosiers, and several others truly felt and knew that even though they were union soldiers, they were in no way, shape, or form, Yankees.
Bobrick, Benson, and Benjamin Webb Baker. Testament: A Soldier’s Story of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Cozzens, Peter. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Herdegen, Lance J. The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2012.
Nolan, Alan T. The Iron Brigade; a Military History. New York: Macmillan, 1961.
Swan, James B. Chicago’s Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009.
Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952.