Remembering Civil War soldiers
In his work “The Life of Billy Yank” first published in 1952, former Emory University history professor Bell Irvin Wiley describes how diverse and practicable Union army soldiers were.
When confederates sabotaged a main railroad line in Maryland, one soldier “coolly remarked, ‘I made this engine and I can put it back together again.’”
After work of soldiers with section-gang background, the rail was quickly re-laid, and when the commander asked for an engineer to get the train rolling, “nineteen Yanks from this one regiment avowed themselves capable of taking over the throttle.”
That tale is indicative of two correlated facts: a nation built by a pragmatic, can-do attitude and a people’s army reflecting the diversity of the young nation in terms of skills and people.
Boys as young as nine served as drummers for troops as old as 80. Wiley identified over 300 separate occupations and specialties from accountants to wheelwrights. Farmers were the largest block followed by day laborers. Others well-represented included shoemakers, clerks, blacksmiths, painters, mechanics, machinists, masons, printers, teamsters and teachers.
Notably, bankers and corporate magnates weren’t listed, which shows rules for the wealthy were the same then as they are now.
Educational levels varied from illiterate to college educated. Scotch-born, Third Indiana Cavalry Lt. Edward F. Reid’s “diary is sprinkled with quotations, some of them in Latin, Greek, and German, from classical and contemporary literature.” Reid was also a poet.
Wiley includes a delightful note from an Ohio soldier: “i can see the good of what i got now. there is lots of men here that cant wright and they have got to git somebody to wright there letters i wouldn’t take five hundred dolers for what learn i have got.” He might’ve given his life for his country, but a potential CSAP test would’ve scored him barely proficient.
The idea that the Union army was primarily comprised of foreigners is erroneous, Wiley shows, given three-fourths of it was native born. Of the remaining quarter, Germans were most prevalent, followed by the Irish, whose “influence and example both in battle and in garrison was an immense asset to the Union cause,” despite “their pugnaciousness and excessive fondness for strong drink that made them difficult to discipline.”
That was counterbalanced, however, “by their ready humor, sparkling love of repartee and matchless buoyancy.” Perhaps Wiley’s account is somewhat stereotypical, but the imagery it projects gives life to what might otherwise be a lifeless scene.
Wiley counted 50,000 Canadians, 45,000 Englishmen, and lesser amounts of several other nationalities in the Union army, which causes one to wonder how many were considered “illegal.” None.
Blacks and Indians/Native Americans served as well. The movie “Glory” is about the first all-black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. It would take until 1948 for the army to desegregate by order of President Harry Truman.
Sadly, Indians who fought for those who had subjugated them, received no better treatment than they would’ve received had they not. Reports show their “arms obsolete, pay in arrears, and that in general they were more often dealt with as stepchildren of the Great White Father than as fighting sons supporting the cause of the Union and freedom.”
Regionalism or sectionalism was rife, with the western and eastern armies looking condescendingly upon the other. Eastern soldiers saw their western counterparts as “crude, undisciplined, and slovenly,” while those from Ohio on west saw their eastern cousins as “effete, liquor-soaked, money-mad dandies.”
Every negative psychological profile was present: deadbeat; blowhard or “puffer”; rogue “from the genial rake to the vicious scoundrel”; sot; forager; mournful one; recluse; dandy; maladroit one; and “mamma’s boy” or helpless one.
There were the optimist and prankster, the “ever-faithful” ones, and soldiers of fortune that regaled their comrades with tales of adventure.
There was the “artist-in-arms, the man whose nature was attuned to beauty and light rather than sordidness and shadow, whose inclination and genius were for creation rather than for destruction.” He probably wasn’t good at soldiering, so focused upon the beauty and mystery of nature.
Women, usually disguising themselves as men, made their ways into the ranks: Pauline Cushman, Mary Walker, Sarah Clapp, and Mrs. Reynolds, all served openly, while others, such as Sarah Seelye, “Franklin Thompson,” went to great lengths to hide their gender—their version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
From that complex mix of humanity Lincoln’s citizen army that saved the republic arose.
Memorial Day was first observed on May 30, 1868 to honor those who died in the Civil War. In time it came to honor all who gave their lives for America.
But on this the Civil War’s sesquicentennial beginning, it would be fitting on Memorial Day 2011 to specially honor those who gave “the last full measure of devotion” in America’s bloodiest conflict.