The three million soldiers who served in the Civil War each represent a unique story waiting to be told. Although no two men had the exact same journey into the army, experience in battle or emotional response to their involvement, similar threads weave their way through a significant number of these narratives.
In studying the Civil War’s common soldier — who he was and how the conflict transformed his life — we try to better understand the millions of men who risked their lives in virtual anonymity.
What motivated the former innkeeper ordered to charge across open ground in the face of relentless gunfire? How did the factory worker who defended his trench line until the bitter end fare when he returned home with no more record of service than his name scrawled in a ledger?
When we study the lives of men like these we gain insights into the courage and sacrifice demonstrated by each and every Civil War soldier. Time and again, they were asked to perform tasks that would have been unthinkable in their past lives as farmers, teachers, lawyers, shop owners, carpenters or iron-workers.
Although enlistment, medical and other official records can sometimes be spotty, they nonetheless allow us to analyze an astounding array of facts and figures to better comprehend an overwhelmingly destructive war. These dry documents, however, are augmented by a huge amount of correspondence, diaries and memoirs.
Statistics can tell us something about the men in the ranks, but, thanks to a relatively literate society and the Victorian penchant for personal writing, we are lucky to have these first-person narratives as a pathway into the lives of individual soldiers. The three million soldiers who served in the Civil War each represent a unique story waiting to be told. Similar threads weave their way through a significant number of these narratives. Thus, as we examine the life of the common soldier, we do so through lenses of both commonality and individualism.
A soldier in the Union army was most likely a slim young man a little over 5’8” tall with brown hair and blue eyes. He was probably a farmer and a Christian. Precise statistical figures are more difficult for Southern enlistees, but most Confederate soldiers looked a great deal like their Federal counterparts — although they were even more likely to be farmers by trade. The war was largely a young man’s fight — Union enlistment records indicate that more than 2 million soldiers were age 21 or under when they joined the cause — and some estimates place only 10 percent of the Federal force over age 30. There were, of course, cases on either extreme. Older soldiers typically filled more specialized roles or were officers; some teenagers lied about their age and saw front line combat, but many others served in other capacities, notably as musicians.
Recruitment tactics of the era typically raised companies from a single geographic area, meaning these units (and regiments they were combined into) reflected the demographics of those communities, often with a particular ethnicity or occupation predominating the ranks. This on both sides there were majority Irish units, majority German units, and units made up of men who had often grown up together since birth.
Each of these men, no matter his background, had to make a life-altering decision when the country fractured along fault lines that had long been present. In 1860, the United States was still a relatively young country — an evolving experiment in Constitutional Republican democracy in which both Northern and Southern states sought to protect their own interests. When discussing soldiers’ motivations we must distinguish soldier attitudes from the ideas their leaders espoused. A soldier’s thoughts were his own and did not necessarily belong to Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis: not every Northerner was an abolitionist, nor were very many Southerners a slave owner. The reasons an individual might enlist were complicated and shifting, ranging from the purely practical to the highly sentimental.
Soldiers identified most strongly with their comrades, their states and their communities — with, perhaps, a few country-sized ideals thrown into the mix. Then, of course, there was the draw of war itself as a path to manhood and glory. For others, the promise of a (somewhat) steady paycheck was reason enough to don a uniform.
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