In 1858 Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in which he addressed the disunion growing in the United States in which he said “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”[1]

Two years later his words would turn into reality when the South seceded from the Country when he was elected president. What followed was the bloodiest war in American history because American casualties counted on both sides as brother fought brother. Both the Union and the Confederacy was not at all ready for the conflict as each faced mobilization on a new epic scale. To be sure no one could have predicted the extent the Civil War would go into recruiting and organizing the American civilian populations into armies capable of such bloodshed.

The men who fought in the Civil War, the capacity in which they served in the military, and the reasons why they enlisted must be considered if this period of United States history is to be understood. Furthermore, a comparison between mobilization in the North and the South shows the similarities and the differences in each government’s effort to mobilize its population.

The American Civil War presented a challenge to both the Union and the Confederate governments to mobilize their populations into armies, navies, and militia that numbered in the hundreds of thousands of men. When mobilization of both Northern and Southern militaries are compared similarities and differences between them can be ascertained. While most soldiers were civilians before the Civil War many of the top generals and officers shared military and academic backgrounds.

Soldiers who fought in the Civil War were volunteers who were spurred into action by a set of patriotic principles and recruiting campaigns used these values to encourage men to enlist with recruitment posters. Union forces consisted of Whites, Blacks, escaped slaves, and immigrants in a more cosmopolitan army that was more numerous than the Confederate’s. Black soldiers made up a significant portion of Union forces and greatly attributed to the North’s victory over the South.

Both governments feared that volunteers would not reenlist after their length of service had ended and so the Union and Confederate conscripted men into the army, but while conscription proved to be unpopular in both the North and the South, northern conscription encouraged a massive surge of new volunteers. These conclusions will be expressed in greater detail in the following paragraphs.

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A House Divided: The Professional Army Before the Civil War

As the Southern states made the radical leap towards succession, both the North and South were drastically unprepared for the war that loomed ahead. Prior to the Civil War, the United States had kept a small professional army and relied on state militias as had been in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Only 16,000 men in 1861 were enlisted in the army and stationed in small units which were spread thinly across the land east of the Mississippi River as butter scraped over too much bread.[2]

The Navy was similarly unprepared as only 42 of its 90 ships were in commission in 1861, and only a dozen ships were available for immediate service as the others were abroad in foreign waters.[3] By the end of the war, however, the Union would host the world’s largest navy with a fleet of over 671 ships.[4]

When the South voted to leave the Union, many men had to choose where their loyalties lied, especially if their origins were from the South. They could choose to fight against their homeland or against the nation itself. To leave was treason, but that did not stop many honorable men from resigning to fight for the South. This was not only the case for privates, but for generals and officers as well. Almost one-third of the army’s officers resigned to fight with the Confederacy.[5]

Robert E. Lee, perhaps the most recognized Confederate general, felt torn between these two loyalties but felt that he could not morally fight against his home of Virginia as he said in a letter of resignation to Winfield Scott “I shall carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, & your name & fame will always be dear to me. Save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.”[6]

Many of the war’s top officers and generals had similar backgrounds in training and military service. Despite its lack of attention to tactics and military strategy, officers from both the Union and the Confederacy, such as George B. McClellan, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Thomas J. Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Braxton Bragg graduated from West Point military academy in pursuit of civilian careers.[7]

Furthermore many shared military services in the American-Mexican War. Men such as Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Burnside, and George B. McClellan all obtained reputation and fame from their service in the War against Mexico.[8] The great irony is that many of the officers and generals who were fighting on opposite sides of the bloodiest war in American History had once been fellow students, soldiers, and comrades-in-arms before the Civil War.

These men knew one another and were now leading armies against each other. This does not mean, however, that most officers in the Civil War shared these backgrounds. Only 33 percent of Union and 29 percent of Confederate generals served in the regular army prior to 1861, and only 14 percent of Union and 16 percent of Confederate generals had attended West Point.[9] Most of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War came from civilian life.


During the Civil War, Even the Armies Were Democratic

Because of the majority of civilians in the military, the recruiting of officers was democratic, and each regiment was based on geography and ethnicity as well. 100 men served in a company, and ten companies formed a regiment.[10] Men in companies elected captains and lieutenants and these company officers elected regimental officers whose positions were colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors.[11]

Soldiers in companies often all came from the same town or city and so local leaders were quick to be promoted at the start of the war. Pressure from peers coerced many volunteers into enlisting along with their friends, coworkers, and elected town officials. Because of this democratic nature, officers were expected to do as much as the soldiers under their command and many feared to discipline their troops because it would be unpopular to do so. Historian James M. McPherson claims that “Throughout the war, officers continued to complain about the deficiencies of discipline in their volunteer regiments.”[12]

Officers would write home about the difficulties of leadership as on Confederate captain wrote to his wife, “To keep 60 or 70 raw, undisciplined troops in proper subjection, to instruct them, attend to all their want, to gratify and deny them, to keep up their spirits, to punish and reward and all the while retain their respect and regard is no easy task.”[13]


Enlist Now!: Recruitment Campaigns

Civilians were called upon in a massive recruiting campaign and recruitment posters were often tailored towards a specific demographic group of potential soldiers. There were noticeable differences between most Union and Confederate recruitment posters. Posters in the North were more colorful and depicted imagery to instill patriotic notions in potential volunteers. Confederate posters relied more on words to convince civilians to defend their homes from invasion. A poster for Union enlistment depicting the United States’ Flag and an eagle called for “40 Good Men Wanted Immediately to fill up a company” it offered a 150-dollar bounty and additional 13 to 23 dollars per month as an incentive to join.[14]

Another depicted a soldier standing over a slain enemy on the battlefield as he gloriously holds up the Flag.[15] The imagery of recruitment posters was important as they symbolized the higher ideas that inspired Union soldiers to enlist. Other posters were aimed at specific ethnic groups as one poster targeted at African Americans said “100 colored men wanted” in bold letters, and some were written in French or German.[16] These must have had an impact on the 200,000 black men and the 100,000 German, 100,000 Irish immigrants who enlist in the Union army.[17] Confederate posters called for civilians to come to the rescue of their invaded homeland or called for “freemen” to join, a clear indication of how Southerners felt about their comparison with slaves.[18]

In 1861 both the North and the South campaign for a mass number of enlisted men.  For the Union, Lincoln initially called the militia into federal service, called for 42,000 volunteers, recruited 18,000 sailors for the navy, and expanded the regular army by an additional 23,000 men.[19] Once he got the support of Congress, Lincoln asked for 400,000 more volunteers and Congress approved 1 million. In the end over 700,000 men enlisted. The South mobilized even quicker than the North as the Confederate Congress authorized 100,000 volunteers, to be followed up by 400,000 more.[20]

This is impressive because as one historian says, “Although the South’s manpower pool was less than one-third as large as the North’s, the Confederacy had nearly two-thirds as many men under arms as the Union by July 1861.”[21] When the number of men who were conscripted or otherwise joined the fight afterwards, an estimated 2,100,000 fought for the Union, and 850,000 fought for the Confederacy by the end of the war.[22]  Volunteers of both armies shared similar reasons as to why they enlisted, but they differed in other aspects. Veteran Volunteers contrast against conscripted soldiers as they chose to fight under their own free will.


Why Union and Confederate Soldiers Chose to Volunteer?

Duty, honor, and antebellum male gender roles were primary drivers as to why men volunteered, and these were intensified by the peer pressure to join along with members of their community as it was shameful to be labeled a coward. Men of both sides felt like it was their duty to their nation to sacrifice their lives if need be. Both Union and Confederate soldiers believed they were carrying on the legacy of the Founding Fathers as one Union Soldier wrote to his wife “Our fathers made this country, we their children are to save it.”[23] This sentiment is shared in a Confederate soldiers letter, “Our fathers severed the bonds of oppression once, now we for the second time throw off the yoke and be freedmen still”[24]

Soldier who fought in the Civil War believed they were fighting for freedom and liberty, but even the Union did not generally mean liberty for blacks. Racism was present on both sides, and it was only at the end of the war that many Union soldiers supported abolition.[25] Blacks had much to gain by fighting in the war, and Northern blacks and abolitionists urged for their enlistment. African American equal rights advocate Frederick Douglass believed enlisting blacks in the army was crucial towards achieving equality. He said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has the right to citizenship.”[26]


African Americans in the Union Army

Perhaps what turned some Union whites around on the idea of emancipation was the critical role blacks played in the war effort. In the final years of the war, nearly 190,000 blacks served in the Union army and navy.[27]

By all measure, blacks were just as adequate of soldiers as whites, and without their assistance in fighting the Confederacy, the Union may not have won the war. Even when Black regiments were not used in combat, they were used for logistical duties as well as in labor products. In the navy, black soldiers served in every capacity as white sailors, as one out of ten men were black[28]

As the Union forces worked their way down south, blacks began to run away north to seek their freedom and assist the war effort. Those slaves who could not run away did what they could to sabotage Southern stability.[29] By these actions, we can see that the emancipation of slaves did not come strictly from the benevolent white Northerners, but mostly from the cumulative effort of every African American in the war. Whether as Northern Freedmen, escaped slaves in Union labor camps, or slaves helping northern men escape Confederate prison camps, the crucial role of Black in Northern victory cannot be denied.

“Guerillas, Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers Oh My!”

Not every man who fought in the Civil War did so in an official role as many took the opportunity to wreak havoc on enemy infrastructure. These guerilla units could blend into the civilian population behind enemy lines which made it difficult for Confederate and Southern troops to know who the enemy was. A gray area lies between guerrilla unit and marauder as some simply looted and killed without any direction from army officers. Both Union and Confederates cursed this deplorable kind of men as Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers, terms that came from pre-war violence in Kansas and Missouri.[30]

The more villainous the actions were, the more likely men would be called Bushwhackers or Jayhawkers. The Confederate valued these guerilla actions and authorized official “ranger” companies in 1862, but many historians question whether these units did more harm than good.[31] The Union army “condemned the broad range of brigands, freebooters, marauders, robbers, and war-rebels that had associated themselves with the Confederate cause,” one historian says.[32]

Even some Confederate leaders began to question the value of guerilla companies when they learned of the senseless violence they perpetrated such as burning down entire towns and slaughtering civilians.[33] Guerilla units numbered around 10,000 men in the Confederate army, but this does not count those men who merely used the chaos of war to pillage and plunder as they pleased.


Conscription During the American Civil War

The American Civil War is known as one of the first modern wars, and while it cannot compare to the weaponry or technology of the World Wars, it was the first United States war in which citizens were forcefully drafted into the army.  As the war dragged on, and regiments’ numbers dwindled, it was not often that they would be boosted with new recruits. In 1862 only 50,000 of the 421,000 Union army volunteers went into existing regiments.[34]

This would change when the Union and Confederacy had to force conscription into the army, but most regiments were not at their fighting strength by the end of the war due to sickness, desertion, and casualties. By the second year of the war, regiments once 1000 strong would be cut in half and after 3 to 4 more years that number could be as low as 200 to 350 men per regiment.[35]

Both the Union and the Confederacy were dependent on maintaining their troops in the field, and as most volunteers had only signed on for one or three years, it was not affirmative that they would re-enlist. The draft was used in both the Northern and the Southern armies and was equally unpopular among its citizens, but the draft in the North was more effective than the South as it indirectly increased the numbers of volunteers.

Conscription in the Confederacy was ironically contradictive of the individualistic and state rights heard in the rhetoric of the Confederate cause. As early as Fall 1861 it was feared that many of the volunteers serving one-year terms had lost the enthusiasm that caused them to enlist. At first, the Confederate Congress enacted a draft from which men ages 18 to 25 could be drafted for a three-year service, and raised the age limit from 25 to 45 in 1862, and then to 50 in 1864.[36]

Southern conscription made sure that once men were in the army, they were likely to serve until the end of the war which was essential because of the South’s smaller population in comparison to the North. The Confederate draft allowed exemptions for one white man for every plantation with twenty or more slaves.[37] This was to prevent total lack of supervision on a potentially dangerous slave population, but it was also an exempt for the wealthy whites of the South from the draft. The Confederate draft also allowed substitutes to be sent in the place of the draftee making it easier for wealthy whites to send a poor man in their place.[38]

Not surprisingly southern constriction proved very unpopular and was not enforced throughout the whole South. What the Confederate army got in return for all of the bad publicity were 120,000 draftees.[39] These men would not have the same fervor for the Confederate cause as volunteers and would sooner crouch being a stump than charge the enemy on the battlefield. In the end, conscription in the South was more detrimental than beneficial.

In 1863 the North, like the South, also instituted a draft but its purpose was to indirectly promote reenlistment and new volunteers rather than boost troop numbers through the draft alone. Each state was given a quota of men to volunteer, and if the states fell short of that quota, then the quota would be filled by conscripting men of that state.[40]

Volunteering was further promoted by the issuing of large bounties to be paid upon enlistment with some bounties totaling over 300 dollars for the men who enlisted. Like in the South, conscription in the North found ways around enlisting wealthy men as it was possible to pay a commutation fee of 300 dollars to exempt oneself from being drafted.[41] Since this was about what a working-class family made in a year, commutation fees were not popular among the poor or veteran soldiers who resented men who had bought their way out of enlistment.[42]

The draft was so unpopular in the North that violence erupted in the streets of New York City in which” an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 took part in the riots, and some individual mobs numbered as many as 10,000.”[43] These riots lasted days and only came to an end when the army was called to suspend the mob. Despite its unpopularity and consequence of violence, conscription in the North did result in new volunteers for the army, although it is difficult to argue if it was worth the cost. About 164,000 men were enlisted conscription, only 8 percent of all Union soldiers, but nearly 1 million men enlisted or reenlisted while the draft was in effect which accomplished its intended goal.[44]



The American Civil War was an early indicator of the United States’ capacity to mobilize its population that would launch the nation into global prominence during the following century. The quantity of troops that volunteered shows a nation that shared patriotic principles of duty, honors, and freedom even though its division was supported by these ideas. African Americas fought their way towards citizenship and after emancipation could begin their long road to racial equality. The institution of slavery was eradicated, and the country continued into the new modern era of industrialization.

The strains the Civil War placed on society were apparent as conscription proved to be the darker side of mobilization. Many men were forced to go to war who were not rich enough to buy their way out or pay for someone to take their place, but while they did not choose to fight, as volunteers did, their sacrifices are not worth any less. Also, there were questionable acts done by men during the war in the name of the Union or Confederate cause as the line between guerilla units, marauders, bushwhackers, and jayhawkers was blurred. The nationalist fervor that came from the war left scars as the North, and the South continued to view each other as different. Forming armies to fight this “other” only exacerbated the tension, and it can be argued that the effects of the Civil War are still evident in today’s current events.

Sources Cited

[1] Abraham Lincoln. “House Divided” (1858)
[2] James Hogue & James McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc, 2010), 179.
[3] Ibid, 179.
[4] Ibid, 194.
[5] Ibid, 179.
[6] Robert E. Lee, Letter to Winfield Scott
[7] James Hogue & James McPherson, 179.
[8] Christopher Minster, Christopher. Ten Civil War Generals Who Served in the Mexican-American War. (2017)
[9] James Hogue & James McPherson, 191.
[10] Ibid, 180.
[11] Ibid.
[12] James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. (Oxford, New York, 1997), 48.
[13] Ibid, 54.
[14] Recruiting Civil War Soldiers: Posters and their Power.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] James Hogue & James McPherson, 181.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid, 183.
[22] Ibid, 202.
[23] James M. McPherson, 19.
[24] Ibid, 21.
[25] James Hogue & James McPherson, 186.
[26] Frederick Douglas, Should the Negro Enlist in the Union Army (1863)
[27] Joseph Glatthaar. The African Role in Union Victory. (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), 321.
[28] Ibid, 314.
[29] Ibid, 309.
[30] Daniel E. Sutherland, Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers.
[31] James Hogue & James McPherson, 210.
[32] Daniel E. Sutherland, Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers.
[33] James Hogue & James McPherson, 211.
[34] Ibid, 188.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Ibid, 203.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Ibid, 384.
[41] Ibid, 385.
[42] Ibid.
[43] William F.B. Vodrey. Blood in the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots. (2010)
[44] James Hogue & James McPherson, 386.