A Member of the 8th Missouri Infantry Reflects on Why He Enlisted

Sgt. Phillip A. Smith, Company H, 8th Missouri Infantry. Courtesy of the Peoria Historical Society.

One of the most thorough and remarkable diaries I have come across from a Missouri soldier is from a non-commissioned officer in the 8th Missouri Infantry. A German immigrant and Peoria, Illinois resident, Phillip A. Smith joined the “American Zouaves” regiment in St. Louis in the summer of 1861. Like many Missouri Union regiments, the 8th Missouri was largely composed of German immigrants (even though Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon wanted more native-born Americans for this unit, hence the name) and built primarily of Missourians and Illinoians.

On July 22, 1861, just days after mustering in at the St. Louis Arsenal and encamped at Jefferson City, the state capital that had been occupied by Federal forces at the start of the 1861 Missouri Campaign, Smith laid in bed and penned this diary entry about why he enlisted for three years of service in the Union Army. He reflected on the developing crisis, the rebellion, and “the slave question.” At that time, Lyon’s Army of the West was on an offensive campaign in pursuit of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard into southwestern Missouri. Smith, fervently pro-Union and antislavery, was deeply disturbed and angry toward Confederates, as seen below.

“Jefferson City Mo. July 22nd, 1861.

As I lay in my bed this morning I got to thinking that as I had enlisted in the Army for the period of Three years. Through which time many an incident would occur and many an event take place that would be a pleasure and likely much interest not only to myself if God so wills that I pass safely through this war, but to my friends in the future, I have concluded to Keep a Diary, and shall endeavor to keep it as accurate as can be done under circumstances and conditions under which for what little experience I have already had, I will have to contend with. 

I have left home and a good situation thrown all peaceful avocations aside and have grasped the weapon of death for the purpose of doing my part in defending and upholding the Integrity Laws and the preservation of my adopted County from a horse of Contemptible traitors, who would if they can accomplish their Hellish designs destroy the best and Noblest Government on Earth. Merely for the purpose of benefiting themselves on the slave question. They want to have a Government of their own whose chief Cornerstone shall be Human Slavery. They say that the reason they have seceded was that the North having elected a man to the Presidential chair who is opposed to slavery, will use his Power to oppose and even crush it. That they stand No show of security, That the future will or would be an aggression of the People of the North on their state Institutions and to secure themselves from all this, they would Withdraw from the Union.”

As someone deeply devoted to his new country and its principles, Smith used his diary to reflect on his enlistment and the deeper meaning of his cause. Even at the beginning of the war, he believed in the cause of abolishing slavery and preventing the South from perpetuating the institution while breaking up the country to do so. He knew he was not built to be a soldier, but he would fight and die for his new home.

“I am a young man. Am not of soldierly propensity, but one thing is sure I shall not lay down my musket until this Wicked Rebellion is subdued and the Seceded States brought back to allegiance. I also hope and pray that as the South is fighting for nothing in the World to perpetuate slavery, that not a single state shall be permitted to resume her place in the Union until she has rid herself of this damnable institution hanging to her skirts.”

Smith’s remarkable diary is in the collection of the Peoria Historical Society in Peoria, Illinois – his hometown. His thought-provoking diary is certainly a treasure; it forces us to ponder how his perspectives, ideologies, and viewpoints evolved throughout the war. Stay tuned for more from Sgt. Phillip Smith and his war experience serving in the 8th Missouri Infantry.

23 Responses to A Member of the 8th Missouri Infantry Reflects on Why He Enlisted

  1. Another member of this regiment was Pete McCullough, the “Hanging Judge of Andersonville Prison.” He lived here in Mexico, Mo postwar, and is buried at Elmwood Cemetery. We dedicated a marker to him & other Civil War vets buried there, s few years back. We also have at our local library an original broadsheet printed by members of the American Zouaves in July 1861.

  2. Every soldier past an present has different reasons for signing up. Often we like to put them in certain categories, especially in the case of our Civil War, where the common perception is that Yankees fought to free the slaves while the Rebels fought to retain them. This is true I’d say to an extent for the perspective governments of both sides but not so for the common soldier. The reasons the grunts of both sides enlisted were far different and often times I’d say contrasting. While Sgt. Smith may fit in the commonly accepted anti slavery mold of the Union soldier, there were many of his brothers in arms who were indifferent to slavery. This is especially so for troops from Missouri, Maryland, Delaware and Kentucky where slavery was still legal at the beginning of the Civil War and also in southern Illinois and southern Indiana too. Midwestern Union states were full of southern transplants. I had a set of grandparents that moved out to southern Indiana from North Carolina in the 1830s. They both came from slave owning families and certainly weren’t anything near to abolitionist, but had 3 sons that fought for the Union. Interesting for the grandmother of that family is that her brother moved south to Arkansas instead of Indiana and he had 3 sons who fought for the Confederacy.

    1. Matthew, thanks for reading and commenting! I completely agree with you on the fact that every soldier had his personal reasons for volunteering. Smith is unique in his view of slavery, especially this early in the war. Chandra Manning, Peter Carmichael, and James McPherson tackle the question of soldier motivation in their various works – so if you haven’t had the chance to read those, definitely do! This is why I wanted Smith’s words to speak for themselves rather than trying to address motivation on a larger scale. He explicitly states what is driving him to serve and fight. His ideological view of his role in the war is something quite unique among non-commissioned officers in the Union Army. Just as you said in your comment, these soldiers are by no means identical in their thinking. Though we cannot clump them into distinct groups, we can at least see how their individual ideologies, writings, and viewpoints are impacted by the war and their side’s aims.

      1. Kristen, thanks for responding. I look forward to reading the additional posts you plan on Sgt. Smith. He is awfully well spoken, especially for a German immigrant.

  3. While many, if not most, Northern soldiers were indifferent at best to abolition, the Germans and other European refugees from the revolutions of 1848 were different. On arrival many supported Democratic candidates because of the nativism all to common among the Whigs. But as the war approached they saw the slave owners as the faux aristocrats who had driven them from their homes. The German and other Central European immigrants (Hungarians, South Slavs and Poles) quickly moved to support the nascent Republican Party. Their influence was critical in Missouri as well as Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc. The Germans of the Hill Country of Texas resisted Confederate officers strongly and sometimes violently.

    Is this diary available on line. As you can see the influence of the European 48ers is of special interest to me.

    Kevin Milas

    1. Thanks for commenting, Kevin! I am glad you also brought up the German 48ers. While we cannot say Smith was a 48er (he was too young at the time), his political and social views are in alignment with many fellow German and Central European immigrants – including the 48ers. I also think they saw the issue of slavery as contradictory to the ideals of freedom, equality, and free labor, something they certainly fought for in the 1848 Revolutions. Additionally, they saw the United States as the democratic experiment they dreamt of for the German Confederation. The larger German population of St. Louis, for example, quickly mobilized in support of the Union, freedom, and equality.

      The diary is online from the Peoria Historical Society, so you can also take a look at it. I will be posting more from Smith in the coming weeks.

      1. Kristen, I have been reading extensively on the role of ethnic Germans in the antebellum as well as during the war. You are right about the diversity within the German-American community. In the first place before 1870 few immigrants saw themselves as Germans but rather as Prussians, Bavarians, Hessians, etc. Secondly the religious divide between Catholics and Protestants in the immigrant community played a role in support or opposition to the war/abolition. Finally when immigrants arrived made a big difference. The “Greys” (before 1848) differed from the “Greens” (after 1848). It is not a simple story.

        Thanks for the tip on the Smith diary.

        BTW has ECW ever done anything on the so-called Nueces Massacre of Unionist immigrant Texans in 1862? It is a fascinating story.

      2. Not a problem, Kevin! I am very glad to have met another German 48er enthusiast on ECW. You clearly know a lot about the larger European immigrant experience in the mid-nineteenth century. Just as you said, there is no “one” story of Central European immigrants during the war. Not sure if you had the chance to read Heinrich Boernstein’s account in the book “Memoirs of a Nobody,” but though he was associated with Karl Marx, he tended to stray away from the 48ers after arriving in the US by 1849. He considered himself too old. Instead, as time progressed, Boernstein’s political views steadily moderated over time. That is one sliver of an example of a vastly diverse German-American community, as you pointed out. Thank you so much for sharing some more insight into the German American community during the Civil War.

      1. I downloaded it. Thanks. I will give you a source you may or may not be aware of.

        There is good information on antebellum and wartime German immigrants in Richmond, as well as Charleston and New Orleans, in “With More Freedom and Independence than the Yankees” by Andrea Mehrlander in Civil War Citizens: Race, Ethnicity and Identity in America’s Bloodiest Conflict edited by Susannah Ural. Inter alia I learned in this for the first time about the role of immigrant Germans as blockade runners.

  4. Kevin, very interesting info on the German 48ers. Perhaps you would be interested in a book I just read, Guns of Burgoyne, a novel that follows the German soldiers in British service during the Saratoga Campaign of the Revolutionary War. They touch on German politics of that era and the injustices many of them, the soldiers and their wives, faced at the hands of their electors, the
    aristocracy. It’s written by Bruce Lancaster.

    1. Thank you. Washington used German-Americans to guard (and recruit) captured Hessians after Trenton.

      1. I probably had family among the guards. They immigrated from Germany in the early 1700’s. I wouldn’t doubt some of them retained the old language to some degree. My last name is a pre-Revolution Anglicization of the German spelling…..whatever it was.

      2. My 5th great grandfather Johann Daniel Hillenburg was a Hessian of Rall’s command captured at Trenton. He was paroled & deserted British service, settling in Wythe County, VA.

  5. Obviously he had bought in to the propaganda of radical abolitionists. In 1861 Lincoln was doing all he could to assure the racist North that his war was not about slavery, and he would do all he could to see an amendment passed that would make slavery permanent and irrevocable as far as Congress was concerned. In the meantime, the South would in a matter of months carry out diplomacy to end slavery in hopes of gaining support from foreign powers to help gain independence. Obviously you don’t give up slavery to win a war if slavery is what you seceded and are fighting for. These diplomacy missions began in ‘61 or ‘62 and were still underway when Lee surrendered. The ultima causa of the South was not slavery but rather independence from a section of the Union which had a history of ignoring the Constitution in an effort to exploit the South politically and economically. (For more on the Southern effort to end slavery, see the letter written to Lincoln by 8 Union Congressmen in July 1862 stating “If they can give up slavery to destroy the Union; We can surely ask our people to consider the question of Emancipation to save the Union.” See also the secret mission of Duncan Kenner in 1864, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4232057

    1. Rod is delusional. The secessionists said, over and over, that they were acting to defend slavery. As for “northern violations of the Constitution,” when secessionists leveled that charge they meant that the north was resisting the fugitive slave act or tried to ban slavery in the territories (an entirely constitutional action which southern fire-eaters started pretending was illegal in the 1840s). It always came back to slavery.

    2. As for the Kenner Mission, not only did it not take place until after the Union had committed to destroying slavery, it was a fraud — Davis reluctantly sent Kenner to offer something Davis had no power to grant, knowing that the measure would be so unpopular that he didn’t even inform the Confederate congress of it.

      Rod is desperate to pretend exceptions are really rules in order to whitewash away the taint of slavery from the Confederate cause, just as he is desperate to dismiss northern anti-slavery feeling. His depiction of history is distorted beyond recognition.

      1. When a rebuttal begins with ad hominem attack, you know their argument is weak. Obviously Eatroff knows very little about events leading up to the Kenner mission. And he doesn’t even mention the earlier ‘62 mission the evidence for which I have linked to above. And his claim that the Southern cause “always came back to slavery” is evidence of a woeful lack of reading in primary sources.

        The South’s ultimate cause was not slavery but rather independence. This is made obvious by its efforts beginning as early as ‘62 to end slavery in hopes of receiving foreign aid in its war effort. Eatroff is typical of those whose history is driven by agenda. Dr. Ludwell Johnson, Professor of History, College of William and Mary warned about agenda driven claims: “Various theoretical “isms” arriving from Europe in the 1960’s still endanger the very existence of what has so long been thought of as history… Of all fields of scholarship, history is perhaps most attractive and vulnerable to Political Correctness. It decrees that some things should be accepted without question – otherwise the elaborate machinery of academic control and social hostility will exact their full measure of retribution on the dissenter… Readers with special interest in the period of the Civil War need to be particularly alert because the South and Southerners offer many tempting Targets to the holier-than-thou.”

  6. Many of my ancestors came to Texas with the Adelsverein in the 1840’s, the Monument to the Nueces Massacre was just a few miles from my grandmother’s house. It’s a story I have researched in some depth. The first graves in our family cemetery was for 4 men lynched by Confederate terrorists. And they were from my Scots-Irish side, men who opposed succession. The story of the Nueces Massacre is all too often overlooked. As is the strong opposition to the Confederacy in the Texaa Hill Country.

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