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Uncle Abe Needs You! (really, really bad)

By William Marvel
6/1/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

The Lincoln administration demanded more from Northern communities and trampled on constitutional rights as fewer men volunteered for the Union Army.

The Northern optimists of 1861 had been dreadfully wrong. By July 1862, what they claimed would be a short war had turned into a bloody nightmare. First Bull Run, Shiloh, the battles on the Virginia Peninsula and a score of small but mean fights at places such as Ball’s Bluff had sent thousands of boys home in boxes or planted them in crude battlefield graves. The endless blood bath had quelled the martial enthusiasm of the war’s early days, and only in the poorest districts could many still be found willing to commit themselves to mortal danger for $13 a month and a $100 bounty. The multitudes of unemployed and underemployed men who had chosen not to enlist had been absorbed into war-related industry, and Mr. Lincoln’s army was wanting for troops. On July 1 the president issued a call for 300,000 more volunteers, but the response was muted at best.

To cope with the soldier shortfall, Congress revised the Militia Act of 1795, expanding the president’s authority to demand that state governors provide troops ready to serve for nine months rather than three years. That move, however, unleashed a chain reaction of unintended consequences that threw communities across the North into turmoil.

For one, because the United States remained primarily an agricultural society in 1862, it was an inopportune time to ask farmers to abandon their fields while hay and crops were ripening. In addition, as state and local governments faced the difficult task of trying to induce reluctant men to join up, many were forced to bear the burden of increased enlistment bounties. That typically meant increased taxes, which in turn shifted the burden to the townspeople.

But perhaps worst of all was the resentment the new bounty system generated in the men who had already volunteered to serve for nearly nothing the previous year.

The Militia Act

The revised Militia Act of 1795 that Congress passed in the summer of 1862 did more than expand President Lincoln’s authority to demand nine-month troop limits. It also meant the president could require states to fill their troop quotas by the draft, if not enough men came forward voluntarily. For the first time the nation’s commander in chief had the power to force citizens to fight in a war, whether they supported it or not. States had previously exercised a milder version of that authority, but it had not been used since the War of 1812. Most Americans had come to view conscription as the outdated privilege of Old World kings and emperors.

On August 4 Secretary of War Edwin Stanton distributed an order for 300,000 nine-month militia volunteers to the governors and leaders of 22 Northern and border states and the District of Columbia. The promise of an enlistment bounty in the range of $100 was these officials’ primary option to entice volunteers ahead of a potential draft.

Voters in Middletown, R.I., for instance, originally agreed on a $125 bounty for each of the 18 men the town needed to fulfill its quota. That brought in only three men, however, so the town fathers reconvened to authorize a bounty of $500 for each volunteer, and also offered more cash to coax a railroad contractor into recruiting enough of his Irish laborers to meet the town’s obligation.

Communities across New Hampshire were among those that tried to outbid each other for bodies until everyone who could make himself look old enough or young enough for military service considered volunteering to serve. Through a combination of public and private funds the councilmen of Portsmouth raised enough to pay $100 to every recruit willing to apply himself to that city’s credit. Little Contoocook felt constrained to do the same. Barrington, two towns away from Portsmouth, next appropriated $200 for each of the 10 recruits it lacked, plus a fund of $1,000 from which their wives would be able to draw, and at least four resident farmers decided overnight to accept that offer.

Then the town of Bristol, in the center of the state, raised its own bounty to $200. Tiny Hampstead voted for $300. These appropriations, wailed many a thrifty voter, would send local property taxes skyrocketing.

Individuals contributed to the mercenary mania as well, and sometimes in the hope of keeping themselves or their sons out of uniform. The treasurer of a textile mill in Laconia, N.H., advertised a $25 bounty for each mill employee who would enlist in one of the state’s nine-month regiments, adding the promise of holding his job until his return—but neither the treasurer nor any of his sons joined those regiments. Joseph Gilmore, a Concord railroad executive who was destined to be the next governor of New Hampshire, also promised $25 to each of nine men who would fill the complement of a local company. Gilmore had four sons, but none enlisted…then or later.

Rancor in the Ranks

The bounty system also unsettled many troops in the field who had enlisted for nearly nothing the previous year. John Burrill of Maine, for example, had seen the worst of Bull Run, Fair Oaks and the Seven Days’. When his hometown offered each new recruit a bounty of $160, two of his brothers jumped at the chance. Rather than being happy, Burrill was disgusted they should be rewarded so liberally for stepping forward to serve so late.

Marshall Phillips, a 39-year-old private in the 5th Maine, reacted with sarcastic fury when he learned of such lavish incentives. Phillips had earned a meager living as a shoemaker before the war, but he left his wife and children in the summer of 1861 for the slim rewards of Army pay, the hope of living to collect the Federal $100 bounty at the end of his term and the Auburn selectmen’s vow to support the families of those townspeople who volunteered.

Auburn, though, had failed to live up to its grandiose promise of dependent support, which left Phillips’ wife, Diana, to supplement her husband’s puny salary by begging and borrowing. Naturally, the broken promises soured Private Phillips. When he learned that his neighbors back in Auburn had voted to pay hundreds of dollars for each man in the community’s quota of 45 recruits and realized that he would be subsidizing this arrangement through increased taxes, he sat down in his Army of the Potomac camp at Harrison’s Landing, Va., and composed a lengthy, searing letter for the local newspaper back home.

The town fathers could no longer pay in promises, Phillips observed, because everyone knew they had reneged on those made to the earliest volunteers. Now, if more worthy citizens were to keep themselves and their precious sons out of the Army without incurring the personal expense of hiring a substitute, everyone with any taxable property would have to help pay sizable bounties in advance—including townsmen who had been absent with the Army for more than a year already, and lacked the opportunity to vote against such an injustice. The town’s leaders would agitate their fellow citizens into a patriotic delirium in which they could hardly refuse the money, and 45 “poor fellows who are of no account in the world” would probably step forward to risk their lives.

The town of Auburn paid in excess of $14,000 for that summer’s recruits, and well over two-thirds of the money went to meet the nine-month militia quota. By war’s end, Phillips’ hometown had spent more than $65,000 on bounties alone, and ballooning property taxes eviscerated the value of the $100 bounty he finally took home in 1864.

Sometimes, even $100 was not enough to lure men into the ranks. Portsmouth, N.H., for example, had failed to get enough men to satisfy the government’s demand at that rate, and headlines emblazoned with exclamation points heralded another war meeting that would presumably approve a better offer. It got to the point where gambling men brazenly bet that the bounties would go higher still, and they would loiter attentively along the fringes of community rallies until the last possible moment, hoping that the bounty totals would increase.

Those recruitment rallies often made quite a spectacle. Lucy Larcom of Beverly, Mass., attended one frenetic gathering at the village green on August 21, 1862, where prominent citizens promised the crowd that military service for the men that year would prove far less dangerous and uncomfortable than it had for volunteers in the first year of the war. In other words, the massive new armies would bring the fighting to a hasty close, and everyone would come home heroes, with hundreds of dollars in profit to boot. Those who harangued the crowd seemed conspicuously immune to their own pleas, Mrs. Larcom observed, for no one who spoke actually intended to enlist; the only veteran on the rostrum was a discharged Irishman who climbed up to boast about his service in the disaster at First Bull Run.

Suppressing Home-front Dissent

Recruitment rallies were often interrupted by angry shouts from the neglected wives of earlier volunteers but also from critics of administration competence and from opponents of the war’s official and clandestine aims. That was to be expected in a nation that supposedly treasured freedom of speech, but Edwin Stanton unilaterally abolished that freedom on August 8. Anticipating opposition to his threat of a draft, Stanton appointed a special judge advocate to deal with dissent and issued instructions for local and federal law officers to imprison anyone “who may be engaged, by act, speech, or writing, in discouraging volunteer enlistments, or in any way giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or in any other disloyal practice against the United States.” The vague text of the order ensured its arbitrary enforcement and invited abuse from partisan federal marshals.

For a year federal agents had been muzzling the more rabid of the government’s scolds: Men had been jailed and newspapers suppressed in a thinly disguised program to weaken opposition to administration policies. Just prior to Stanton’s formal gag order, one newspaper in southeastern Missouri announced the arrest of two citizens charged with using “disloyal language,” and named one other local political opponent who might be officially silenced as well. A critical St. Louis paper characterized Horace Greeley’s radical New York Tribune as a “pestiferous sheet” and questioned why it failed to merit suppression for far more violent language against the administration than some Democratic presses that had already been shut down.

The imposition of compulsory military service and the hint of impending policies favoring abolition, however, immediately prodded opposition rhetoric to new levels of volume and ferocity, and Stanton’s decree presented a specific new public-interest pretext for prohibiting embarrassingly apt political commentary. With renewed vigor, U.S. marshals of predominately Republican pedigree started rounding up malcontents—nearly all of them Democrats—on the excuse that their vocal disagreement with presidential policies discouraged men from volunteering. The “disloyal” remarks of this latest crop of state prisoners ranged from justifiable complaints that the military machine disproportionately consumed the poorer classes of society to the rank suspicion that Lincoln’s effort to restore the Union disguised a secret agenda for abolishing slavery. Most of the marshals’ victims seem to have committed no crime worse than the acerbic expression of opinions that revealed, perhaps, more truth than the administration wished to acknowledge.

On August 14 Dennis Mahony, the Irish editor of the Dubuque Herald, was arrested by Iowa’s U.S. marshal, H.M. Hoxie—a crony of Republican Governor Samuel Kirkwood. Mahony resented the heavy burdens the war had placed on his economically disadvantaged countrymen. Another of Kirkwood’s friends assessed the effect of Mahony’s editorials as “disastrous” to the government’s cause, and especially in the matter of raising troops. Mahony had been preaching peace for months, asserting that most people wanted peace but refrained from saying so for fear that the weight of official power would fall on those who dared to speak their minds. Hoxie helped Mahony to prove that very point, but he appears to have done so on extraordinarily premature instructions from the secretary of war. In his report on Mahony, Hoxie admitted arresting him on the authority of Stanton’s order of July 26, before the secretary had even imposed a prohibition on “discouraging enlistments.” All the affidavits against Mahony were dated August 12 and 13, suggesting that Hoxie had solicited those documents to provide retroactive legitimacy to Stanton’s preconceived judgment.

In jail Mahony met David Sheward, his counterpart at the Constitution and Union, of Fairfield, Iowa. Sheward had denounced the recruiting bounties as mere bribes offered to suborn citizens to commit treason on behalf of the usurper, “King Abraham.” Mahony and Sheward joined the editors of an Illinois newspaper, some Illinois judges and a few other celebrity dissidents for the long journey to Washington, where Hoxie lodged them in the Old Capitol prison. Most of them languished there for several months, until they agreed not to file lawsuits against Hoxie and the other Federal officers who had violated their civil rights; in his desperation to save his newspaper from mortgage default, even the combative Mahony submitted.

Republican newspapers not only crowed over the administration’s latest assault on free speech but published the names of dissident competitors whom they hoped to either intimidate or see imprisoned. Federal officials accommodated much of that partisan vengeance, and prisoners started streaming in from all corners of the country. In New Jersey, prominent Democrats were targeted for expressing their opposition to the war; in northeastern Pennsylvania, public officials were arrested for advising would-be volunteers to stay home and vote for peace candidates; in the Wisconsin heartland, a man was jailed for telling the audience at a Union rally that few recruits would be forthcoming, and that if he were drafted he would desert to the other side.

Offhand comments like that, or any kind of suspicious activity, inspired numerous other affidavits and arrests in Iowa. A Wayne County unionist reported to the governor that dissident citizens had descended to such depths of treason that they had actually laughed at their local home guard company. In Madison County a man named McCarty, who was involved in the organization of home guards, complained to authorities that “Rebel Sympathizers” were hesitating to join their company and had become “very saucy.” McCarty accused a local physician of belonging to the “nights [sic] of the Golden Circle,” and added that the doctor was raising a company that might be destined for the Confederate Army. Other informants nurtured similar hysterical notions about the Knights of the Golden Circle, insisting that the society served as a recruiting conduit for Southern forces or for a popular rising against the government. A man from east-central Ohio spent months in prison after two men claimed he had tried to recruit them as Knights.

In Indiana the seeds for a successful Supreme Court challenge to the government’s highhanded tactics were sown when the U.S. marshal for Indianapolis first sought permission to arrest Lambden P. Milligan, whose public remarks had turned especially unflattering to Mr. Lincoln’s war. No critic of the administration seemed exempt: Even William J. Allen, a peace Democrat newly elected to Congress from southern Illinois, went to jail in that mid-August orgy of repression because of opinions expressed during a political campaign. Allen was actively running for re-election to the congressional seat he had just attained, and many of his fellow prisoners were not released until after the fall elections. Like Marshal Hoxie’s victims, the last of them remained in prison until they relinquished even the right to sue their arresting officers for false imprisonment.

The political background of most of the prisoners strongly suggested that their arrests represented political exploitation of Stanton’s order. That did not exactly constitute unauthorized abuse of Stanton’s instructions, either, since the real purpose of the order appears to have been to intimidate the opposition. Governor Andrew Curtin recognized as much when he advised the release of several well-respected Pennsylvanians, remarking that the arrests alone had accomplished everything the administration desired. Curtin was right, too: the intimidation seemed to work. Citizens who had never feared to express themselves on national issues suddenly balked at the realization that the War Department could simply abolish their First Amendment rights—or, apparently, any other constitutional protection.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of indignant citizens felt the hand of some sheriff or provost marshal clutching their shoulders that summer, and their arrests chilled the opposition. Doomsayers and detractors fell silent or turned their anger to more private settings, allowing the draft-driven recruiting rallies to continue without interruption. Some courageous editors continued to vilify national policy in the wake of Stanton’s dictatorial August 8 pronouncement, but overall dissent abated in tone and frequency at a time when liberty-loving citizens might have been expected to raise their voices in a deafening crescendo.

 

Adapted from the forthcoming book Lincoln’s Darkest Year by William Marvel. Copyright © 2008 by William Marvel. Reprinted by the permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. All rights reserved.

Originally published in the September 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.  

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