In 1861 several states had militia systems in various states of development. State militia structures gave the opportunity to expand on an existing structure and training system, rather than create units out of whole cloth. Famous units like the 1st and 2d Wisconsin, 1st and 2d Virginia, the Washington Artillery, and several Pennsylvania units all came from existing militia units rounded out with recruits.
Of all the states, New York arguably had the best-structured militia
system. In 1847 the state had consolidated its various detached companies into regiments in various regions. In 1861 these regiments were called by the Governor, quickly filled their ranks, and left the state for Federal service. Some (7th, 8th, 12th) served on 90-day enlistments, others (10th) nine months, while the majority ended up serving three years. Many of these units (2d, 9th, 14th, 20th, 69th, 79th, etc) served with distinction on many battlefields.
The example of the 14th New York State Militia is representative of how these units formed and went to the front.
The 14th New York State Militia (NYSM) was created in Brooklyn from the 1847 reforms. It organized 8 infantry companies, rounded out by one artillery and one engineer company. For much of the 1850s, it was very much a social club and status symbol for its members; its roster of officers carried the names of some of the most prominent families in Brooklyn. But the regiment also had real military duties – parades, riot suppression missions, drills, and maneuvers. In 1860 the 14th adopted a French chasseur a pied uniform.
The Civil War’s outbreak found the 14th numbering 125 men. The regiment’s commander was Colonel Alfred M. Wood, a noted politician and future mayor of Brooklyn. Wood quickly started recruiting, filling the enlisted ranks while maintaining the existing officers and NCOs. Six days after Fort Sumter the 14th NYSM numbered 825 personnel. Wood telegraphed the unit’s readiness to Governor Edwin Morgan in Albany.
While recruiting went on, twice the 14th deployed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to guard against possible Confederate raids and sabotage. The Union Defense League of New York set the 14th up in a training camp at Fort Greene Park, just outside the Navy Yard’s gates. There the men drilled and coalesced into a fighting unit.
While other NYSM regiments went to the front, the 14th cooled its heels. Considering that Brooklyn was an independent city and third-largest in the Union, and Wood was a political opponent and potential oppositional candidate of Morgan, it appears politics played a role. Finally, after direct appeal from Wood to President Lincoln, the 14th was accepted for Federal service. The enlistment term offered was three years or the war.
On May 18, the 14th Brooklyn departed for Washington. “When the word arrived,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Edward B. Fowler, Wood’s second-in-command, “the companies were assembled by their captains and the proposition was made to them to enlist for the war. Almost unanimously they consented, with great enthusiasm. Then, after hurried journeys to their homes to say goodbye to their loved ones, the soldiers of the regiment were called together on the afternoon of May 18, 1861, and the march to the front was commenced.”
Of the 825 men who departed Brooklyn that day, only 127 would come back when the regiment’s term of enlistment ended in May 1864.