NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links



Thomas G. Conway
Historical Research and Narrative

Private Smith's Journal

After the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12,1861, enthusiasm for enlisting in military service swept through both the North and South. In remarkable speed two large volunteer armies were created. Except for a tiny number of professional soldiers, and most notably the highest ranking officer, General Winfield Scott, all expected to be in service for a brief term. However, the patriotic falsehood that the war would be over in a matter of weeks was doubtful by the first battle of Bull Run, July 21,1861. After a year of combat, no sensible person believed that an early end to the bloody strife could be predicted, and the knowledgeable expected peace to be far off in the future.

The public and its political leaders had fooled themselves about the war's duration. Facing a protracted war, maintaining a sufficiently sizable army became the greatest problem facing both Union leader Abraham Lincoln and Confederate leader Jefferson Davis. Volunteers for service could only be obtained in sufficient number by active recruitment. Recruiters appealed to young men's patriotism by peer pressure, a successful strategy throughout the four long years of the war. This was especially effective in rural areas and small towns where local leaders organized companies, and sometimes regiments, and were subsequently elected by their recruits as captains and majors. In typical American fashion, associations of adult citizens, from clubs to student bodies, often volunteered en masse. Virtually every male enrolled at Illinois State University at Normal enlisted under the university president, forming the Teachers Regiment.

The numerous diaries kept by the war's participants provide the best evidence of this process. Many diaries have been published and are available as resources. One of them, the diary of Benjamin T. Smith, "Private Smith's Journal," is one of more than 250,000 Civil War manuscripts kept in

Fort Sumter - April 12, 1861



the Illinois State Historical Library alone. Benjamin T. Smith was working in Watseka, in Iroquois County, some ninety miles south of Chicago. With his family he had migrated west from Rhode Island after 1856. He described himself as a student and painter by occupation, five feet six inches in height. Smith wrote that he enlisted after reading a newspaper account of the Battle of Bull Run that "fired my boyish feelings." He was only seventeen when he told his brother, then the head of the family, "Joe!! I am going for a 'sojer'... I am going over to Oldtown tomorrow and enlist."

Smith said that his brother dismissed his announcement with a laugh and promptly fell asleep. Smith added:

He might look at it as a joke, but it was no joke to me, as I would show him. I could see our boys in my mind as they scattered helter skelter off the battlefield at Bulls Run, and the old saw ran through my mind. "He who fights and runs away may live to fight another day."

The next day Smith was on a train headed for his mother's home in Kankakee, Illinois, where he enlisted in the Fifty-first Illinois Volunteer Infantry.

A few miles from Watseka, Moses Messer, a surveyor who had moved from Connecticut to Onarga in Iroquois County, was differently affected by the news of the attack on Fort Sumter: "There are some among us that would be glad to have the South seceed." However, two days later he reacted when he heard that Southern sympathizers in Baltimore had ambushed Yankee troops bound for Washington, claiming that this dastardly deed had "aroused the whole West and North." His brief diary entries show the mood of the community:

20 Large meeting here today. Raised flag pole and flag. 12 volunteers. Some of principal men are joining.

22 Whole country alive to the cause. People getting up a volunteer Co. to go into service.

23 Co. nearly full. Will go off in few days.

24 Town in general stir. Place full of men, some have enlisted. Others desire to. Boys in earnest. Hard to keep them from enlisting.

25 Boys drilling in freight house. Elected officers.

26 With soldiers all day.

27 With soldiers all day, played (fife) a little for them. Interest of people thoroughly aroused Sentiment expressed is Union.

When Messer learned the news of Bull Run, he wrote: "War unfavorable to U.S. May inspire Northern people with more energy." (The unpublished diary of Moses Messer is in the hands of the author.)

Messer was fourteen years older than Smith. Married and with two children, Messer thought carefully about enlisting. "Everybody is going to the war," he confided to his diary October 10,1861, indicating the public pressure on him to volunteer. At the time he was running for the local political office of public surveyor as an independent, and he was elected.

Moses Messer wrote that he had two cousins, brothers Edwin B. and Irwin P. Messer, who had both volunteered and were then serving in the Thirty-seventh Illinois, Edwin as captain and Irwin as lieutenant. During the war they corresponded with cousin Moses.

The Messer brothers served in a regiment with another pair of brothers, Ransom and George Kennicott. Ransom was elected

Everybody is going tot he war - 1861


a captain and rose to become a lieutenant colonel. George, initially a sergeant, rose to the rank of a captain. The Kennicotts belonged to the large Illinois family that included the widely known naturalist Robert Kennicott of The Grove in Glenview.

The telegraph spread the news of the attack on Fort Sumter within hours, and even those citizens living in frontier isolation heard the news within days. Not so Robert Kennicott. He may well have been the very last American to learn that the country was at war, discovering the fact over a year later; he was in the Arctic region on a one-man expedition for the Smithsonian Institution. The news propelled him to return to home and he reached The Grove on October 18,1862, just before his twenty-sixth birthday.

Man playing the flute

His father, Dr. John A. Kennicott, had tried to enlist, although he was sixty years old. Robert said that he wished to volunteer because several of his cousins and one brother had already volunteered, but he procrastinated on the advice of an officer who told him to wait for a more advantageous time. Colonel Horace Capron, a friend of the family, sought congressional approval to raise a cavalry regiment to serve against the Sioux Indians in Minnesota. Robert's brothers were raising a cavalry company with hopes of becoming its captain and lieutenant. Robert waited out the year.

The young men who felt the pressure from their friends to enlist from their friends were also faced with the counter pressure of obligations to family and the need to achieve professional goals. Some hesitated. It became critical to the success of the war that these men be recruited. This was especially true as the willingness of men to volunteer declined in 1862 and even more so as the term of the three-year enlistments expired in 1864.

One year after the war began, the Confederate government instituted conscription; all male white citizens from eighteen to thirty-five were declared to be in the army for three years, and those already serving were required to remain for three more years. Lincoln was able to delay conscription, but Moses Messer wrote on July 26, 1862, "Probably be draft [sic] in fall and I may have to go yet." In Illinois as elsewhere in the North, bounties were offered in hopes of increasing enlistment. Advertisements for the Thirty-seventh Illinois, the regiment in which Messer and the Kennicott brothers served, offered $100 in gold to be paid at the end of enlistment. In August 1862 Moses Messer felt the pressure to volunteer:

1 Draft in state likely this mo. then I may have to go, or procure a substitute and do not know as I am able to hire a man to go in my place. I do not wish to go to war. Many have gone whose condition is worse than mine.

4 Have a good deal of war fever this eve. Good many of our best citizens going. I begin to feel it is my duty to go with the others in making an effort to save our country.

6 President calls for 300,000 men. If not, draft by the 15. Do not know which is best, volunteer or wait. Been thinking the matter over all day.

7 Have almost concluded to go.

8 To KKK [Kankakee] to see what is being done. No need for draft in this state. Lucy feels very bad about my going.

9 Astonishing how men put their names on the roll. About six companies from this county. An order today to prevent men going out of the U.S. Several arrests in Chicago.

10 Drove to Freds and Forrest Lindseys. They are opposed to the war. . . Too many such men about the country.

11 Played fife for Ashkum and Loda men. Nearly all the men in the south-east Part of the County have joined.

12-15 In KKK at camp. Wrangling of officers for place bad as a County election.

16 Companies of this and Livingston Counties may combine and form a regiment. If so, Iroquois will have half of the officers. I may stand a chance.

17 County turned out well. No draft unless President makes another call.

19 To KKK. Boys from Onarga ordered to make camp. . . Adj. offered me Fife major in the 76 reg.

21 Adjutant anxious I take place of fife Major. Not accept pay in


I'm drafted.  Jolly isn't it.

$21.00. I do not think there is a chance for me in either of the regiments that will suit me and I have made up my mind to stay at home.

Messer followed the progress of the war carefully and received a visit from his cousin, Captain Edwin Messer, when he came through the area on a recruiting mission. As for Moses, he avoided military service. He wrote at the end of 1862: "Whole country looks dark. Do not see our way safely out only by much fighting... For me this has been a good year of bounty and ease. Although not made much more than a good living."

Most residents in the state were more patriotic than Messer. In fact, Illinois was near the top in percentage of its citizens enlisted in the Union Army. However, whether it was defending the Union or South, in order to reach the desired audience, the message had to be pitched to the level where it would get the required response. Large state and local bonuses on top of the general loyalty of its citizens encouraged heavy volunteering throughout the war. In Illinois, as elsewhere, this meant making enlistment rewarding, and state, county and township bonuses were born. Cook County, for example, paid a bonus of $300. Although Lincoln instituted national conscription in March 1863, few Illinois men were actually drafted. The reasons for this included a special feature of the Civil War conscription acts in both the North and South, which permitted draftees to hire substitutes.

Robert Kennicott wrote his mother in September 1864, "I was drafted today." Kennicott's soldier brother had returned home on sick leave while his first cousins continued in action, one dying for the Union and two for the Confederacy. Meanwhile, Robert had returned to his work for the Smithsonian and the Chicago Academy of Sciences without a thought of enlisting. He wrote:

I'm drafted. Jolly isn't it! Only learned it tonight no time yet to make plans, can't say whether I shall go to Mobile with Sherman. If substitutes run too high I may be unable to get one if I want to.

His plan was to get up a meeting of his neighbors who were eligible. Those willing to enlist would be paid bonuses by those who did not want to go. "If five or over will join I'll furnish $200 or $300... For every volunteer furnished within the next ten days from anywhere but credited to Northfield [township where he resided] the man lowest on the list is discharged."

Kennicott's excuse was that he had heavy debts and responsibilities to his family and to the Chicago Academy of Sciences. He wrote:

I am thinking enviously that I may have to go into the army. The idea doesn't trouble me as much as I expected, and but for the museum I'd be quite jolly over it. . . Of course, I cannot in honor leave, and should be averse to doing so unless the price of a substitute renders it impossible for me to get one.

He discovered that because the enlistment for Cook County was very high, a substitute would cost $800, of which $300 would be covered by the county's bounty. His patrons at the Academy of Sciences arranged a loan, and he avoided the draft.

Although hiring substitutes was widespread—eventually there were 118,000 in the North and only 46,000 conscripts-active recruitment of volunteers remained the most common means of obtaining soldiers for the war. Ninety-four percent of those in military service were volunteers, and some joined to avoid the stigma of being drafted.

One of the most effective recruiting methods, discovered the Union Army, was using furloughed soldiers to recruit in their home communities. Benjamin T. Smith was recruiting volunteers before he completed his brief training at Camp Douglas in Chicago; sent home to Kankakee, he recruited, among others, his brother. A pleasant surprise for President Lincoln was that his three-year veterans generally re-enlisted. They were given a month's furlough, after which they returned to fight to the war's end. Many returned to camp with new recruits to staff regiments severely depleted by death, injury, and disease; and many new recruits created new regiments instead of filling the empty places in older ones.

Young men old enough to become soldiers closely followed stories about the conflict. News about the progress of the war was not limited to newspapers. There were countless thousands of letters mailed home


by combat-tested veterans, who had not only fought battles but also witnessed the frequent death in camp from innocent-sounding but highly lethal diseases such as diarrhea. The realism in their message, however, did not always dampen the appeal to arms. There is considerable evidence that in the wartime election of 1864 the active soldiers were much more committed to finishing the fight than the noncombatants, many of whom cast their ballots for candidates supporting a peace platform.

Name that Motive

In the Union, the purpose of the war was altered when, on January 1,1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. While this important presidential action won wide international support, which was expected, it had a dual effect at home. For African Americans, free or slave, it had the appeal of a revolution for freedom that the early war had lacked. Yet for many northern whites, it was not entirely welcome. Commonly held views of black inferiority showed up in a barrage of negative responses.

Many Union soldiers' letters expressed the distaste of fighting to abolish slavery. A frequent complaint was: "I am most willing to die for the Union but not for Negroes." Emancipation made it possible for African Americans to enlist in the Union Army. By the end of the war 10 percent or two hundred thousand of the Northern soldiers were African Americans. The heavy enlisting in the war by free blacks and runaway slaves greatly reduced the need for drafting whites. Nonetheless, the hatred for African Americans coupled with the draft helped precipitate a horrendous race riot in New York City.

It was the offensive application of conscription as a tool of class oppression that provoked the New York riot. Those with money simply bought their way out. Because of its very large population, New York had a large quota of enlistments to meet. Normally, volunteers were so common in rural areas, that there was little need for the draft. In some cities in the North, such as Chicago, residents were loyal to the federal government and recruiters drew upon that good will. However, New York was notorious for its lack of loyalty to the Union, and the only way that it met its military quota was applying the draft to the state's large population of Irish. The Irish in New York were generally poor and unable to afford the high price of a substitute, which cost the equivalent of more than two years wages. The antidraft riot that broke out at the announcement of a draft lottery July 11, 1863, became a terrible race riot with African Americans the targeted victims. Before the army put down the riot, 120 persons died.

As in all wars, questions will always remain as to the motives of those who served gallantly or otherwise, freely or from some kind of coercion, and of those who did not serve for reasons justifiable or unjustitiable, understandable, or simply out of selfishness. Probably no two men served for exactly the same reasons, nor did any two not serve for exactly the same reasons.

Click Here for Curriculum Materials


|Home| |Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois History Teacher 1997|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library