Defining Duty in the Civil War

Defining Duty in the Civil War; Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front by J. Matthew Gallman. University of North Carolina Press, 2017 paper.

Matthew Gallman has described the ways in which the Union’s civilians understood the meaning of duty and citizenship in wartime. He has used a fascinating variety of evidential sources: the numerous newspapers and pamphlets of the day, humor magazines, literary journals, novels, and more to describe the character of popular culture during the Civil War.

Writers were responding to the high rates of literacy. Often letters home from soldiers at the front would be reprinted in the local press and thus circulate within the soldier’s community. Pre-printed cartes de visite stationery was a popular means of corresponding, and their patriotic themes were a good means of tracing popular opinion.

There were many ways in which young men in the Union could meet their intention of serving their country, either in the field of battle or on the home front. Initially there were sufficient enlistments of willing young men to cover the needs of what was assumed would be a short war. But volunteers soon proved insufficient. Other options. You could find an old lady who was willing to convince a provost marshal of her total dependence upon you. Or young men could pay a $300.00 commutation fee ($9,150 in 2017 dollars). You could apply for a deferment, arguing that you were engaged in an occupation necessary to the war effort. You could accept a bounty as an incentive to enlist. The money given out as bounties was raised by your local community. (Bounty jumpers were those who went AWOL and returned home.) You could hire a substitute. There was always Canada.

You could claim to have a “bad spleen’” and prove it with a doctor’s note, forged if necessary. You could mutilate your trigger finger. Gallman argues that these options were a combination of patriotic appeals and something akin to market-like incentives.

There were also conscientious objectors, not to be confused with those who opposed the war for political reasons, the Copperheads. Quakers had a long-standing antipathy to war. But there were also numerous Quakers who had contracts to supply materiel for the battlefield. And they profited while others fought.

Professor Gallman (History, UF) could have buttressed his clear arguments with a quick look at “the songs that fought the Civil War.” (See youtube.music. The model would be The Songs that Fought the War; Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945.) Tell My Father is perhaps the most moving of the popular songs of the Civil War era. Familiar to me: The Yellow Rose of Texas, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, We’re Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground, Marching through Georgia, and a disproportionate number of songs that celebrate the Irish involvement in the Union cause.

Some are marching songs, many sung around the campfire. They would have been available as sheet music for the home front and the parlor piano.  Their sentiments matched the meaning of duty and citizenship in wartime that Gallman describes.

The Lincoln Administration was remarkably patient with this imperfect recruitment. It did not argue that all those who avoided war service were unpatriotic. Rather his Administration looked for ways in which these nineteenth-century peaceniks could find opportunities to serve their country off the battlefield.

Lincoln regarded conscription as an opportunity to select those who could best serve their country on the battlefield. Conscription was not a conscription of the unwilling but rather selecting from a nation that had volunteered en masse.

The system led to abuse. And no amount of humor. One petition to a provost marshal asking for the bearer’s relief from military service because his vital importance to the home front was attested to and signed by 500 ladies!

Urban elite males sought opportunities to receive a command. They then had to recruit their unit. That would take time, effort, and money. At times these would-be commanders would hang around army headquarters as though they were on active duty, but without a unit. General McClellan found this so bothersome that he ordered all officers to return to their units or be removed from army command posts.

The various strategies for appearing dutiful are almost exclusively white male contrivances. In the early years of the war, the stated aim was the preservation of the union; all patriotic men were to serve their country to restore its unity. With the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 war aims changed. Slave emancipation emerged as the main aim. Northern civilians were much less enthusiastic about that objective, which affected enlistment.

What about blacks? The participation of African Americans was more complicated. Confederate forces threatened to enslave black soldiers from northern cities who were taken captive. Blacks, until late in the war, were paid less than white soldiers and were primarily used for heavy labor rather than infantry.

Northern white men were entering the period of service as individuals looking for the best way to serve their country. Northern black males, on the other hand, constructed a collective response of their race to defining duty in the Civil War.

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