Recruiting The Regiment: Off To War At The Movies?

Recruiting scenes have been featured in Civil War movies and television shows for decades. While we could debate at length about the best or most memorable of these moments, here are four that stand out in unique ways and contribute to our consideration of what it meant when a regiment was from a local community. In order of appearance in cinema history, Gone With The Wind, Glory, Cold Mountain, and Copperhead.

(This blog post contains minor spoilers for the four movies.)

Gone With The Wind (1939) doesn’t have a “recruiting” scene per se, but the rush to war is well-captured. The news of Fort Sumter arrives during the Twin Oaks Barbeque and after Scarlett O’Hara has been sneaking around, eavesdropping on the men’s conversations, asking Ashley Wilkes to marry her, and fighting with Rhett Butler for the first time. There’s a loud shout from someone riding up to the house, and “Dixie” takes over the movie’s score as the majority of men and young women react excitedly to the news. Scarlett rushes upstairs, chased by Charles Hamilton who makes an awkward marriage proposal. She watches Ashley and Melanie kiss, and as Ashley rides away, Scarlett agrees to marry Charles to get revenge on Ashley.

From the previous discussion among the gentlemen, Ashley Wilkes is the “captain,” likely implying that the young men have formed a cavalry militia unit in anticipation of the war or as protection for themselves in case of an uprising among their enslaved. Later in the movie, Melanie Wilkes references Cobb’s Legion as the Confederate unit that her husband joined. Historically, Cobb’s Legion originally formed with seven infantry companies, four cavalry companies, and one artillery battery; the cavalry portion later expanded and was known as the 9th Georgia Cavalry or still called “Cobb’s Legion.”

While the movie doesn’t really explain what’s going on, it does illustrate how young men in the communities had formed militia units, ready to join state or Confederate service as soon as word arrived that the conflict had begun. Most of these semi-organized units lacked solid military training and would be consolidated into more regular regiments during their period of drill and official mustering.

Scarlett’s first wedding. (IMDB)

Glory (1989) has a recruiting sequence that focuses on some of the officers and then the enlisted men. In the movie, Robert Gould Shaw is ambushed at a party and given command of the 54th Massachusetts; he retreats outside to contemplate the implications of accepting command of African American soldiers. A friend follows him, and they discuss the position with Shaw declaring, “I’m gonna do it.” Thomas Searles, one of Shaw’s friends and African American man employed by Shaw’s father, is the first to volunteer. The next scene shows a crowd of enlistees, excitingly declaring they are ready to go fight. Shaw seems to appreciate their enthusiasm and shows respect for his new-recruits, but he looks worried, knowing they are far from ready to march to war or experience combat. After a brief address, the officers order the men to form companies, and Major Cabot Forbes (a fictional character loosely based on the Hallowell boys) tries to be helpful, pointing out their company assignments are written on their muster sheets.

Unlike some of the other films, Glory actually shows a muster paper given to the new soldiers, but it doesn’t show them actually signing enlistment papers. This film has the unique task of showing the formation of a regiment and the heavy prejudices the 54th Massachusetts historically faced as they mustered and trained. While the actual recruitment and enlistment scenes are short, the process of the regiment “forming” as a military unit and learning to bond is a much longer part of the movie. There is a sense of triumph and foreboding in the scene as the newly uniformed leaves Boston in a parade scene that capstones their recruiting and training before the movie transitions to war experiences.

Unlike the majority of Civil War films with recruiting scenes (and yes, there are many more than these selected four), Glory does not add a romantic element to its plot or enlistment scenes. It has a different focus and shows much more of the decisions and military training because that is part of the film’s focus. Although “historical fictionalized”, Glory’s storyline highlights a real regiment and the historic moment of recruiting one of the first African-American regiments in the Federal army. This adds a different focus and gravitas to the recruitment scene: these men know that the nation will be watching them and commenting on their service. They also know that by enlisting they may die on the battlefield, and that serious thought is brought more to the forefront in the scenes than in other films.

Morgan Freeman in “Glory” (IMDB)

Cold Mountain (2003) structured a fascinating recruiting scene. For weeks prior to the news of war, W.P. Inman and Ada Monroe have been staring at each other and flirting in social settings. They are both in church when commotion outside disrupts the service and prompts the young men to start slipping out the church door. Similar to Gone With The Wind, we don’t see the young men signing recruitment papers, but they seem to have made a pact that they would all go enlist together or they have already formed some type of militia unit. Either option seems possible, but the movie did not specify (at least how I understood it). While the young men are rejoicing that their war has come, the local bad guy—Captain Teague—threatens them, asking who will defend the homefront and the women and children left behind and announcing that he will oversee law and justice for the duration of the war.

Inman returns to his lodgings, which seem to be in a boarding house, and puts on a gray uniform. Ada follows him there and hesitatingly gives him a book and her photograph. They share a passionate kiss, interrupted by several other want-to-be soldiers rushing by. Inman seems very reluctant to go to war, but he joins the other men in the street below and marches out of the village while Ada watches from a balcony window.

This sequence is particularly interesting and adds a twist on the classic “excited about war, kiss the girl, march off while the band plays.” Captain Teague’s announcement that he will be in charge of the community in the absence of most of the other men is both an alarm point in the plot and a historic nod to the homeguards who sometimes controlled the homefront in unfortunate ways. It brings up the very real concern about what would happen to the civilians left behind when the young men left the community.

Just before he puts on his uniform, Cold Mountain. (IMDB)

Copperhead (2013) is a film about a northern community and the differing points of view and politics held by the residents, including the “copperheads” or Peace Democrats. The recruiting scene occurs nearly forty minutes into the movie as the main character’s son enlists with other young men from the up-state New York community. Although it is an important plot point, the details woven into the rural enlistment scene are also significant. The montage of the gathering of new soldiers shows them saying goodbye to their families and sweethearts while a uniformed band and veteran officers watch. Following orders, the new recruits form ranks, the band begins to play “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” and the young men—still in civilian clothes—march off while the onlookers cheer.

Since the movie is set in 1862 and prior to the 1863 Federal Draft, these young men are still definitely volunteers. The blue-coated officers and band could point to several scenarios by that point in the war. They could be recruiting to fulfill a state quota for soldiers, they could be forming a completely new regiment, or they could be connected to an already established unit and have returned to refill that regiment’s ranks. It’s not a scene in the exciting days of 1861, but some of the young men still seem eager to go, even though they did not enlist in the first rush to war. With the exception of the main character, the community is depicted as supportive of their sons and brothers going to war, though that does not make their parting any easier.

Copperhead’s enlistment and recruits’ departure scene is the last that the viewer and the community sees of these soldiers until they begin to return home wounded or their names appear on the casualty lists. Unlike Cold Mountain which shows moments from both soldier and civilian experiences, Copperhead is firmly rooted in the hometown and the battlefield or camp is never shown. The recruitment anchors in the reality that men left their homes and families behind and weeks or months went by without news or knowledge if they were dead or alive. The patriotic festoons came down. The music faded. And the boys were gone—sometimes forever.

The boys out of uniform in Copperhead (IMDB)

The sampling of four “recruitment” scenes in four different movies reveals common threads that Hollywood emphasizes in Civil War entertainment. In the majority of movies, there is a romantic element as the regiment departs, and this tends to add to the intrigue and sense of possible loss through war or it highlights forbidden love which might drive the movie’s plot. (“They’re kissing again!” Quote from The Princess Bride) There is a surprising lack of actual “sign the paper” or go through a recruiting examination process—at least in these four films (and in the majority of others I’m thinking of). The marching to war scenes, whether the recruits are in uniform or simply marching together, tend to be great cinematic moments which are then used to contrast with a drilling camp, battle, or something else that shows a stark contrast with the realities of war.

What other recruitment scenes do you find unique or interesting in Civil War films?

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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5 Responses to Recruiting The Regiment: Off To War At The Movies?

  1. Ryan Quint says:

    The opening scenes of the movie “Wicked Spring” shows the recruitment of its major characters, all without dialogue. It’s an interesting way to introduce the characters at the beginning of the war before the film skips ahead to the Battle of the Wilderness.

  2. Mike Maxwell says:

    I would agree that the movie, Gone With the Wind, captures the “rush to join the war” about the best of any Civil War-focused film (although my favorite Civil War movie remains “Glory.”) And it is my belief that Civil War films do not show “all the men signing up for service” …because that is not how it happened. In “The Iowa First” published by Franc Bangs Wilkie in 1861 (pages 5 – 25) he details the North’s recruiting process: men joined (individually) militia companies for State service, often before the war began; eight -to- ten companies were combined, at the pleasure of the Governor, for State service as a Regiment; and if permitted by Federal Law, the State Regiment’s members were individually examined “for health and obvious deficiencies” – too short, too heavy, missing a limb – and then the acceptable members were re-combined into their ranks and, en masse, the Regiment SWORN into Federal service by administration of an Oath by a Regular Army mustering officer.
    As the Dubuque companies departed aboard the steamer, Alhambra, bound for Davenport and the continued recruitment of the First Iowa for State service, Wilkie recalls: “A larger crowd never gathered in the Key City, nor ever a steamer swung into the broad Mississippi that went freighted with kinder wishes or more heartfelt adieus. Eyes were dimmed with mistiness, and hearts throbbed heavily with painful yet tender thoughts, as amid the thundering hurrahs of the crowd and the roar of artillery the Alhambra turned its prow away from Dubuque, and went cutting the spray to the Southwards…”
    [Oath administered: “I do solemnly swear that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all enemies and opposers whatever, and I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and all officers appointed over me according to the rules of the Army of the United States, so help me God.”]

  3. “Gods and Generals,” shows men leaving civilian life for military service.

  4. Debra Kay Page says:

    Although it was just a passing scene and not the main focus of the movie, don’t forget about “Gangs of New York” where the immigrants are arriving in New York harbor and almost immediately made citizens and recruited to fill the ranks of the Union army. These newly recruited soldiers are then climbing onto a ship as the caskets of fallen Union soldiers are being offloaded. https://youtu.be/z6QNLiioAbg

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