Union Army

On the outbreak of the American Civil War the United States Army had 16,000 officers and men. Of these, 313 officers left to join the Confederate Army.

On 15th April, 1861, Abraham Lincoln called on the governors of the Northern states to provide 75,000 militia to serve for three months to put down the insurrection. Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee, all refused to send troops and joined the Confederacy. Kentucky and Missouri were also unwilling to supply men but decided not to take sides in the conflict.

Some states responded well to Lincoln's call for volunteers. The governor of Pennsylvania offered 25 regiments, whereas Ohio provided 22. Most men were encouraged to enlist by bounties offered by state governments. This money attracted the poor and the unemployed. Many black Americans also attempted to join the army. However, the War Department quickly announced that it had "no intention to call into service of the Government any coloured soldiers." Instead, black volunteers were given jobs as camp attendants, waiters and cooks.

On 22nd July, 1861, Congress authorized a volunteer army of 500,000 men. Individual states were still responsible for equipping and outfitting the soldiers. However, by the late summer numbers willing to volunteer dropped dramatically. The Union Army also began to suffer from an increasing number of desertions.

In January 1863 it was clear that state governors in the north could not raise enough troops for the Union Army. On 3rd March, the federal government passed the Enrollment Act. This was the first example of conscription or compulsory military service in United States history. The decision to allow men to avoid the draft by paying $300 to hire a substitute, resulted in the accusation that this was a rich man's war and a poor man's fight.

William B. Hyde, 9th New York Cavalry.
William B. Hyde, 9th New York Cavalry.

Abraham Lincoln was also now ready to give his approval to the formation of black regiments. He had objected in May, 1862, when General David Hunter began enlisting black soldiers into the 1st South Carolina (African Descent) regiment. However, nothing was said when Hunter created two more black regiments in 1863.

John Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts, and a passionate opponent of slavery, began recruiting black soldiers and established the 5th Massachusetts (Colored) Cavalry Regiment and the 54th Massachusetts (Colored) and the 55th Massachusetts (Colored) Infantry Regiments.

The Enrollment Act resulted in Draft Riots in several American cities. There was heavy loss of life in Detroit but the worst rioting took place in New York City in July. The mob set fire to an African American church and orphanage, and attacked the office of the New York Tribune. Started by Irish immigrants, the main victims were African Americans and activists in the anti-slavery movement. The Union Army were sent in and had to open fire on the rioters in order to gain control of the city. By the time the riot was over, nearly a 1,000 people had been killed or wounded.

It is estimated that of those who took part in the American Civil War, 75,215 were regulars, 1,933,779 were volunteers and 46,347 were drafted and 73,600 were substitutes. Over 250,000 men were honorably discharged for physical disability arising from wounds, accidents or disease in the service. Officially, 201,397 men deserted, of which 76,526 were arrested and returned to their regiments.

Of the 2,128,948 men who served in the Union Army a total of 359,528 were known to have died. This included 67,058 men who were killed in action, 43,012 who died of their wounds and 224,586 were the victims of disease. Another 24,872 were killed in accidents or died from other causes.

Primary Sources

(1) Oliver Howard remembers going home for the first time after deciding to join the Union Army in May, 1861.

Before entering my front gate, I raised my eyes and saw the picture of my little family framed in by the window. Home, family, comfort, beauty, joy, love were crowded into an instant of thought and feeling, as I sprang through the door and quickly ascended the stairway.

My wife was patriotic, strong for the integrity of the Union, full of the heroic spirit, so when the crisis came, though so sudden and hard to bear, she said not one adverse word. I saw her watch me as I descended the slope toward the ferry landing, looked back, and waved my hat as I disappeared behind the ledge and trees.

(2) Oliver Howard described taking his regiment, Third Maine Volunteers, on the way to Washington in June, 1861.

At railroad stations in Maine, on the approach and departure of our trains, there was abundant cheering and words of encouragement. However, here and there were discordant cries. Few, indeed, were the villages where no voice of opposition was raised. But, later in the war, in the free States after the wounding and the death of fathers, brothers, and sons, our sensitive, afflicted home people would not tolerate what they called traitorous talk.

(3) Frank Wilkeson, who fought in the Union Army, later wrote about his experiences in Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier (1887)

Wounded soldiers almost always tore their clothing away from their wounds so as to see them and to judge of their character. Many of them would smile and their faces would brighten as they realised that they were not hard hit and they would go home for a few months. Others would give a quick glance at their wounds and then shrink back as from a blow, and turn pale as they realised the truth that they were mortally wounded. The enlisted men were exceedingly accurate judges of the probable result which would ensue from any wound they saw. They had seen hundreds of soldiers wounded, and they had noticed that certain wounds always resulted in death. After the shock of discovery had passed, they generally braced themselves and died in a manly manner.

Near Spotsylvania I saw, as my battery was moving into action, a group of wounded men lying in the shade cast by some large oak trees. All of these men's faces were gray. They silently looked at us as we marched past them. One wounded man, a blond giant of about forty years, was smoking a short briarwood pipe. He had a firm grip on the pipestem. I asked him what he was doing. "Having my last smoke, young fellow," he replied. His dauntless blue eyes met mine, and he bravely tried to smile. I saw he was dying fast. Another of these wounded men was trying to read a letter. He was too weak to hold it, or maybe his sight was clouded. He thrust it unread into the breast pocket of his blouse and lay back with a moan.

This group of wounded men numbered fifteen or twenty. At the time, I thought that all of them were fatally wounded and that there was no use in the surgeons wasting time on them, when men who could be saved were clamoring for their skillful attention. None of these soldiers cried aloud, none called on wife, or mother, or father. They lay on the ground, palefaced, and with set jaws, waiting for their end. When my battery returned from the front, five or six hours afterward, almost all of these men were dead.

Long before the campaign was over I concluded that dying soldiers seldom called on those who were dearest to them, seldom conjured their Northern or Southern homes, until they became delirious. Then, when their minds wandered and fluttered at the approach of freedom, they babbled of their homes. Some were boys again and were fishing in Northern trout streams. Some were generals leading their men to victory. Some were with their wives and children. Some wandered over the family's homestead; but all, with rare exceptions, were delirious.

(4) Benjamin F. Butler, Autobiography and Reminiscences (1892)

In the spring of 1863, I had another conversation with President Lincoln upon the subject of the employment of negroes. The question was, whether all the negro troops then enlisted and organized should be collected together and made a part of the Army of the Potomac and thus reinforce it.

We then talked of a favourite project he had of getting rid of the negroes by colonization, and he asked me what I thought of it. I told him that it was simply impossible; that the negroes would not go away, for they loved their homes as much as the rest of us, and all efforts at colonization would not make a substantial impression upon the number of negroes in the country.

Reverting to the subject of arming the negroes, I said to him that it might be possible to start with a sufficient army of white troops, and, avoiding a march which might deplete their ranks by death and sickness, to take in ships and land them somewhere on the Southern coast. These troops could then come up through the Confederacy, gathering up negroes, who could be armed at first with arms that they could handle, so as to defend themselves and aid the rest of the army in case of rebel charges upon it. In this way we could establish ourselves down there with an army that would be a terror to the whole South.

Our conversation then turned upon another subject which had been frequently a source of discussion between us, and that was the effect of his clemency in not having deserters speedily and universally punished by death.

I called his attention to the fact that the great bounties then being offered were such a temptation for a man to desert in order to get home and enlist in another corps where he would be safe from punishment, that the army was being continually depleted at the front even if replenished at the rear.

He answered with a sorrowful face, which always came over him when he discussed this topic: "But I can't do that, General." "Well, then," I replied, "I would throw the responsibility upon the general-in-chief and relieve myself of of it personally."

With a still deeper shade of sorrow he answered: "The responsibility would be mine, all the same."

(5) After being badly wounded at Fair Oaks, General Oliver Howard was taken to a large house that had been converted into a Union Army hospital.

Dr. Hammond, my personal friend, met me near the house, saw the blood, touched my arm, and said: "General, your arm is broken." The last ball had passed through the elbow joint and crushed the bones into small fragments. He led me to a negro hut, large enough only for a double bed. Here I lay down, alarming an aged negro couple who feared at first that some of us might discover and seize hidden treasure which was in that bed.

My brigade surgeon, Dr. Palmer, and several others soon stood by my bedside in consultation. At last Dr. Palmer, with serious face, kindly told me that my arm had better come off. "All right, go ahead," I said.

"Not before 5 p.m., general." "Why not?" "Reaction must set in." So I had to wait six hours. I had received the second wound about half-past ten. I had reached the house about eleven, and in some weakness and discomfort occupied the negro cabin till the hour appointed. At that time Dr. Palmer came with four stout soldiers and a significant stretcher. The doctor put around the arm close to the shoulder the tourniquet, screwing it tighter and tighter above the wound. They then bore me to the amputating room, a place a little gruesome with arms, legs, and hands not yet all carried off, and poor fellows with anxious eyes waiting their turn.

On the long table I was nicely bolstered; Dr. Grant, who had come from the front, relieved the too-tight tourniquet. A mixture of chloroform and gas was administered and I slept quietly. Dr. Palmer amputated the arm above the elbow. When I awoke I was surprised to find the heavy burden was gone.

(6) Army surgeons normally used chloroform to send soldiers asleep while they amputated their limbs. James Winchell, a soldier in the Army of the Potomac, recorded after the war how he had his arm amputated while he was fully conscious.

Surgeon White came to me and said: "Young man, are you going to have your arm taken off or are you going to lie here and let the maggots eat you up?" I asked if he had any chloroform or quinone or whisky, to which he replied "No, and I have no time to dilly-dally with you." I said it was hard, but to go ahead and take it off. He got hold of my arm, pulled the bandage off, pushed his thumb through the wound and told me to "come on", and helping me up we walked to the amputation table. They put me on the table, cut off blouse and shirt sleeves filled with maggots, and after a lot of preliminary poking and careless feeling around my arm and shoulder they made me sit up in a chair, and wanted to hold my legs, but I said "No, I won't kick you." I set my teeth together and clinched my hand into my hair, and told them to go on. After cutting the top part of my arm and taking out the bone, they wanted me to rest an hour or so; to which I refused. I wanted but one job to it. Then they finished it, while I grasped for breath and the lower jaw dropped in spite of my firm clinch. I was then led away a short distance and left to lie on the hot sand.

(7) (7)George Norris wrote about his brother John Norris in his autobiography Fighting Liberal (1945)

From the opening weeks of the Civil War - from Fort Sumter and Bull Run - my mother lived daily in fear John would enlist in the Union army. She decided to exact from him a promise not to enter the armed service. That gave her a temporary peace of mind; and then when John, no longer able to bear the spectacle of his friends marching off in uniform, went off like them, she gave herself the luxury of a few tears in my presence as she went about her household tasks.

In maturity I could understand John's struggle with himself. He had been raised in a rigid and unswerving devotion to all promises. A promise made was a promise to be kept. Undoubtedly it was with great effort that he told mother of his decision to enlist. My mother, like all mothers, hated war; but at the time I thought it was John's failure to keep his word to her that caused my mother's sharpest grief. Never before had he broken a promise. It was on this record of obedience that she had rested confidently.

When he went away she watched the mails for letters that came from him, with long waits in between. She treasured those letters more than any other possession, reading and re-reading them, and then tying them in a packet with red ribbon and placing them away carefully in a tin box. Red ribbon was scarce in that impoverished household of girls.

There was the initial shock when the news came that John had been wounded in the Battle of Resaca which preceded Sherman's triumphant entry into Atlanta. But the message itself was reassurring; a bullet had pierced his leg, and the wound did not appear to be serious. He had written that after receiving medical care he had been able to rejoin his company without delay and would continue the march, nearing its end. Then word arrived of his death from infection which had set in. And while he was sinking he wrote mother a letter seemingly inspired by the knowledge death was near.