It was an exciting day for Scarlett O’Hara. She was attending the gala event of the season, a picnic at the elegant Twelve Oaks plantation in Georgia owned by Ashley Wilkes. Widely considered the most exciting and attractive young single woman in the area, she was immediately surrounded by would-be suitors at the occasion.
Scarlett fancied her young self madly in love with Ashley. But she had heard he was to announce his engagement to his cousin Melanie at the picnic. So she was secretly planning to confront Ashley in private before the announcement, declare her love for him, and persuade him to abandon his plans to marry Melanie. She accomplishes her mission of telling him of her passion, but she fails in her mission to win him over, as he is determined to marry Melanie.
If you’ve seen the movie Gone With the Wind, you know that shortly after the scene of this big disappointment for Scarlett, the tone of the whole movie changes. Instead of continuing a story of the genteel life on the plantations of the Old South, the fact that the setting for this scene is April, 1861, is jarringly brought into focus when someone dashes in and excitedly announces that Georgia has declared war on the “Union” as part of the Confederate States of America. And at that point all the men in the crowd abandon all the ladies and go rushing off to gleefully enlist in the Army of the Confederacy. For after all, it will be a short, glorious war in which the superior gallantry and soldiery of the South will surely prevail.
Here’s that frantic scene, with Scarlett retreating up the stairs to mope over her own personal tragedy of losing Ashley, while the men dash hither and yon to head out to take up arms for the Great Cause.
Although I’m sure I read lots of material in my grade school and high school American History textbooks about the Civil War, most of what I remember from that was just a long list of names of generals and battles. I don’t remember reading anything about the “common man” of the North or South and how he personally experienced the war. The only thing that even vaguely brought it to life for me was the photos of Matthew Brady that accompanied some of the text.
I guess some school systems now do have “supplementary material” that incorporate contemporary accounts written by soldiers and civilians, and more examination of “context” of what was going on at the time other than just a litany of battles. But it is my understanding that this isn’t all that more common in most 21st century schools than it was even in the 60s when I was in high school. I have only learned in recent years by my own “extra-curricular” reading in scholarly history books more about the reality of the Civil War era…rather than the “patriotic mythology” incorporated in civic pageantry. For both North and South indeed did construct a “heroic mythology” of the Civil War after the fact. In many cases, a very misleading mythology. On both sides.
This article explores just one aspect of that mythology—the implication that there was a great patriotic enthusiasm of the “common soldier” of each side in the Civil War for what he perceived to be the reason for being asked to sacrifice himself on the altar of the War if necessary. If one is to believe the impression made by the scene above from Gone With the Wind, every son of the Confederacy was ready to rush off to war. One would be tempted to assume that the same was true about the Yankee sons. There would be no need at all for a draft to fill the armies of each side, for the platoons would be full of volunteers.
One would assume this incorrectly about the men on both sides.
There had been no national draft in the United States from its founding right up to 1862.
In America before 1862, combat duty was always voluntary, but white men aged 18 to 45 were usually required to join local militia units. Colonial militia laws—and after 1776 those of the states—required able-bodied white men to enroll in the militia and to undergo a minimum of military training, all without pay. Colonial Pennsylvania (controlled by Quakers) did not have such laws. Members of pacifist religious denominations were exempt. When combat troops were needed some of the militiamen volunteered for short terms of service, for which they were paid. Following this system in its essentials, the Continental Congress in 1778 recommended that the states draft men from their militias for one year’s service in the Continental army; this first national conscription was irregularly applied and failed to fill the Continental ranks.
In 1814, President James Madison proposed conscription of 40,000 men for the army, but the War of 1812 ended before Congress took any action. An 1840 proposal for a standing army of 200,000 men included conscription, but it never passed and military service was voluntary before 1862. [Wiki: Conscription]
In 1814 in relation to Madison’s proposal for conscription, Daniel Webster gave a speech in the US House of Representatives, in protest against the conscription bill being considered in Congress. Webster was very passionate about the topic:
The question is nothing less, than whether the most essential rights of personal liberty shall be surrendered, and despotism embraced in its worst form. When the present generation of men shall be swept away, and that this Government ever existed shall be a matter of history only, I desire that it may then be known, that you have not proceeded in your course unadmonished and unforewarned. Let it then be known, that there were those, who would have stopped you, in the career of your measures, and held you back, as by the skirts of your garments, from the precipice, over which you are plunging, and drawing after you the Government of your Country.
…The administration asserts the right to fill the ranks of the regular army by compulsion. It contends that it may now take one out of every twenty-five men, and any part or the whole of the rest, whenever its occasions require. Persons thus taken by force, and put into an army, may be compelled to serve there, during the war, or for life. They may be put on any service, at home or abroad, for defense or for invasion, according to the will and pleasure of Government. This power does not grow out of any invasion of the country, or even out of a state of war. It belongs to Government at all times, in peace as well as in war, and is to be exercised under all circumstances, according to its mere discretion. This, Sir, is the amount of the principle contended for by the Secretary of War (James Monroe).
Is this, Sir, consistent with the character of a free Government? Is this civil liberty? Is this the real character of our Constitution? No, Sir, indeed it is not. The Constitution is libeled, foully libeled. The people of this country have not established for themselves such a fabric of despotism. They have not purchased at a vast expense of their own treasure and their own blood a Magna Carta to be slaves.
… Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war, in which the folly or the wickedness of government may engage it? Under what concealment has this power lain hidden, which now for the first time comes forth, with a tremendous and baleful aspect, to trample down and destroy the dearest rights of personal liberty?
The draft was not imposed at that time. But I wonder what Webster would have thought when the question arose again 50 years later and the results were different?
At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, both Union and Confederate leaders may have felt that their causes were so compelling that the men in their “nations” would gladly swell the ranks of the armies as volunteers. This may have been at least partly true at the beginning of the war, but it wasn’t long before disillusionment of the common man set in, and fewer and fewer came forward.
At that point, unable to raise enough soldiers to fill the needs of their military forces by volunteers, both sides in that ignominious war resorted to creating a system of conscription.
The Confederacy had far fewer inhabitants than the U.S., and Confederate President Jefferson Davis proposed the first conscription act on March 28, 1862; it was passed into law the next month. Resistance was both widespread and violent, with comparisons made between conscription and slavery.
Both sides permitted conscripts to hire substitutes to serve in their place. In the Union, many states and cities offered bounties and bonuses for enlistment. They also arranged to take credit against their draft quota by claiming freed slaves who enlisted in the Union Army. [Wiki: Conscription in the United States]
Yes, there is a mention of rallying “for the flag” (a pretty vague notion…nothing about the details of the “cause” for which you would be fighting the war…), but just as strong was the admonition to rally–to avoid the draft! If you waited to be drafted, you wouldn’t get any of the perks of volunteering, including a hefty bounty.
Although both sides resorted to conscription, the system did not work effectively in either. The Confederate Congress on April 16, 1862, passed an act requiring military service for three years from all males aged eighteen to thirty-five not legally exempt; it later extended the obligation. The U.S. Congress followed with the Militia Act of 1862 authorizing a militia draft within a state when it could not meet its quota with volunteers. This state-administered system failed in practice and in 1863 Congress passed the Enrollment Act, the first genuine national conscription law, setting up under the Union Army an elaborate machinery for enrolling and drafting men between twenty and forty-five years of age. Quotas were assigned in each state, the deficiencies in volunteers required to be met by conscription.
…In the Confederacy, the “Twenty Negro Law” permitted one owner or overseer of any plantation to exempt themselves from military service; this proved extremely unpopular with many Confederate soldiers and contributed to the oft-spoken adage of “a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight.” [ibid]
Resentment and resistance was much worse in the North, culminating in the July, 1863 “New York Draft Riots.”
The New York City draft riots (July 13 to July 16, 1863; known at the time as Draft Week) were violent disturbances in New York City that were the culmination of working-class discontent with new laws passed by Congress that year to draft men to fight in the ongoing American Civil War. The riots were the largest civil insurrection in American history.
President Abraham Lincoln diverted several regiments of militia and volunteer troops from following up after the Battle of Gettysburg [which had occurred only two weeks earlier] to control the city. The rioters were overwhelmingly working-class men, primarily ethnic Irish, resenting particularly that wealthier men, who could afford to pay a $300 commutation fee to hire a substitute, were spared the draft.
Some historians note that a major precipitating factor bringing on the riots was that political leaders of the time had persuaded many immigrant Irishmen to apply for citizenship so that they could vote. What these new voters didn’t realize until too late was that their new status would also make them liable to being drafted!
The Democratic Party political machine of Tammany Hall had been working to enroll immigrants as U.S. citizens so they could vote in local elections, and had strongly recruited Irish, most of whom already spoke English. In 1863, with the war continuing, Congress passed a law to establish a draft for the first time, as more troops were needed. In New York City and other locations, the new citizens learned that they were expected to register for the draft to fight for their new country. Black men were excluded from the draft as they were not considered citizens, and wealthier white men could pay for substitutes. Free black men and immigrants competed for low-wage jobs in the city.
… There were reports of rioting in Buffalo, New York, and certain other cities, but the first drawing of numbers on [Saturday] July 11, 1863 occurred peaceably in New York City. The second drawing was held on Monday, July 13, 1863, ten days after the Union victory at Gettysburg. At 10 a.m., a furious crowd of around 500, led by the Black Joke Engine Company 33, attacked the assistant Ninth District Provost Marshal’s Office, at Third Avenue and 47th Street, where the draft was taking place. The crowd threw large paving stones through windows, then burst through the doors and set the building ablaze. When the fire department responded, rioters broke up their vehicles. Others killed horses pulling streetcars and smashed the cars. To prevent other parts of the city being notified of the riot, they cut telegraph lines.
But the destruction of the draft office was only the beginning of the rage. The crowds began roaming the streets of New York and destroying everything in their path.
… The Bull’s Head hotel on 44th Street, which refused to provide alcohol to the mob, was burned. The mayor’s residence on Fifth Avenue, the Eighth and Fifth District police stations, and other buildings were attacked and set on fire. Other targets included the office of the New York Times. The mob was turned back at the Times office by staff manning Gatling guns, including Times founder Henry Jarvis Raymond. Fire engine companies responded, but some of the firefighters were sympathetic to the rioters, since they too had been drafted on Saturday.
…Rioters turned against black people as their scapegoats and the primary target of their anger. Many immigrants and the poor viewed free black men as competition for scarce jobs, and worried about more slaves being emancipated and coming to New York for work. Some rioters thought slavery was the cause of the Civil War. The mob beat, tortured and/or killed numerous black people, including one man who was attacked by a crowd of 400 with clubs and paving stones, then lynched—hanged from a tree and set alight. [Actually, 11 black men in all were lynched during the riots, with at least another 100 blacks killed. At least 20 whites were killed, and likely over 2000 people wounded.]
The military did not reach the city until after the first day of rioting, when mobs had already ransacked or destroyed numerous public buildings, two Protestant churches, the homes of various abolitionists or sympathizers, many black homes, and the Colored Orphan Asylum at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue, which was burned to the ground. [Source]
Yes, not even young children escaped the mindless wrath of the mad mob.
The rioters’ targets initially included only military and governmental buildings, symbols of the unfairness of the draft. Mobs attacked only those individuals who interfered with their actions.
But by afternoon of the first day, some of the rioters had turned to attacks on black people, and on things symbolic of black political, economic, and social power. Rioters attacked a black fruit vendor and a nine-year-old boy at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street before moving to the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue between Forty-Third and Forty-Fourth Streets. By the spring of 1863, the managers had built a home large enough to house over two hundred children. Financially stable and well-stocked with food, clothing, and other provisions, the four-story orphanage at its location on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street was an imposing symbol of white charity toward blacks and black upward mobility.
At 4 P.M. on July 13, “the children numbering 233, were quietly seated in their school rooms, playing in the nursery, or reclining on a sick bed in the Hospital when an infuriated mob, consisting of several thousand men, women and children, armed with clubs, brick bats etc. advanced upon the Institution.” The crowd took as much of the bedding, clothing, food, and other transportable articles as they could and set fire to the building. John Decker, chief engineer of the fire department, was on hand, but firefighters were unable to save the building. The destruction took twenty minutes.
In the meantime, the superintendent and matron of the asylum assembled the children and led them out to Forty-Fourth Street. Miraculously, the mob refrained from assaulting the children. But when an Irish observer of the scene called out, “If there is a man among you, with a heart within him come and help these poor children,” the mob “laid hold of him, and appeared ready to tear him to pieces.” The children made their way to the Thirty-Fifth Street Police Station, where they remained for three days and nights before moving to the almshouse on Blackwell’s Island—ironically, the very place from which the orphanage’s founders had hoped to keep black children when they built the asylum almost thirty years earlier. [Source]
It’s not clear from the record how many rioters may have taken part in the four days of rioting, but since it took 4,000 armed soldiers to put an end to the rioting, there were no doubt several thousand people involved.
I had never heard of the New York Draft Riots of 1863 until a short time ago. But when I mentioned the topic to my husband, I was surprised to find out he knew a lot about them. Not because he is a reader of history books…but because he saw Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie Gangs of New York, that starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Cameron Diaz.
Set in 1863 New York, the climax of the film is a recreation (not totally historically accurate, but very effective in accurately portraying the mood, the look, and the level of violence of the event) of the Draft Riots. Here is a link to a clip of 3 minutes or so of that cinematic climax. I do not doubt in the slightest that the real-world event was this bad…and far worse. Be forewarned, you may find the images disturbing if you are not an aficionado of violent movies.
There is very little evidence that the average foot soldier of the Civil War, North or South, considered himself a noble participant in a noble, grand and glorious cause, as the enthusiastic men at Twelve Oaks envisioned it would be. There is no doubt that many on both sides fought bravely, of course, when shoved into circumstances beyond their control. But not because of some “ideology.”
Many soldiers of World War 2 have admitted in interviews that, on a day to day basis on the fields of battle, they weren’t motivated to try to take one more “enemy position” by high and lofty, altruistic thoughts of “making the world safe for democracy.” They were motivated by trying to survive one more day. If they were on occasion motivated to acts of bravery that went beyond self-defense, it was most often a motivation based on loyalty to their immediate comrades-in-arms, “saving a buddy,” rather than Saving the World…or their nation.
This shouldn’t in any way take away from the honor of their bravery…it is, I am convinced, totally unfair to expect men in the chaos of war to have to entertain lofty thoughts of Patriotism all the time. Nor does it take away from the “love of country” that no doubt most of those WW2 soldiers had. But why do so many seem to feel it is necessary to create and maintain a mythology about every military venture of one’s ancestors in order to be considered a loyal citizen? For that is unfortunately true in many circles in America today.
I don’t think it is necessary to assume most soldiers on both sides of the Civil War were dedicated advocates of some “Godly, Greater Cause,” in order to honor the memory of their sacrifice and bravery. But it seems a whole lot of armchair warriors 150 years later tend to impose a mythology on American history that this was so.
It’s understandable that the Mythology is accepted unquestioningly by many modern folks, as the icons of mythology scattered copiously about the land certainly glorify it. Such as this statue of Robert E Lee.
Or this one of Ulysses S Grant.
But those Greek-and-Roman-god-like generals posing on their Olympian-like massive horses on their huge pedestals are not what the war looked like down on the ground. Even for the generals. Much less for the foot soldier.
The Civil War was, like all wars, just an ugly, hellish, brutal, dehumanizing, squalid affair. As shown by these Matthew Brady photos.
If we are being entirely honest, the term “cannon fodder” seems more adequate a description of that average soldier, Union or Rebel.
I don’t begrudge anyone their American History Mythology, if it brings them comfort…or whatever needs it may meet. But I do begrudge the fact that anyone questioning that mythology in any way is all too often branded as “unpatriotic.”
I think the healthiest way to approach a national history is just following the facts and record of reality wherever they lead. And then appreciating the good and learning the lessons from the bad so that the future of the country can be better. I am convinced that “Civic Mythologies” get in the way of that. Including Civil War mythologies from either side of that conflict.