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Lincoln’s nine-month enlistment strategy put thousands of unprepared Union troops in the field.

At the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, scores of ill-trained Union soldiers lost their lives when they were rushed into the fray without proper training. Many of those troops were actually sacrificed on the altar of presidential optimism, victims of Abraham Lincoln’s mistaken belief that the Southern rebellion could be put down quickly if he could muster a sufficiently overwhelming force. But the cursory preparation afforded troops raised in the nine-month levy instituted by Lincoln in 1862 often proved woefully in sufficient to prepare them for combat.

In 1861 the United States still retained a healthy suspicion of standing armies. Grounded in the memory of repressive British redcoats, that suspicion was reflected in the 1795 Militia Act, which allowed the president to call upon the states for troops but restricted them to three months of federal service. Whether or not Lincoln really hoped to crush secession with the 90-day force he called for following the attack on Fort Sumter, he could not demand that they serve any longer. After three months he could only ask for volunteers, and if the governors refused to send any or no one enlisted, there was nothing the president could do.

For nearly a year after Lincoln mobilized his three-month men, all went well. The states sent hundreds of thousands of three-year volunteers and several thousand for two years, and on April 3, 1862—just three days before the bloody Battle of Shiloh—Secretary of War Edwin Stanton closed the recruiting stations. By the time Stanton realized his mistake, the fighting had taken a brutal turn, chilling the fervor of potential recruits.

Ironically, another factor that curbed recruiting that April was the sense of impending Union victory in the air. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was perched at the doorstep of the Confederate capital of Richmond and Northern forces had enjoyed a string of victories in the West. Then in late June, Robert E. Lee hurled the Army of Northern Virginia against McClellan outside Richmond and drove him back down the Peninsula. As McClellan re treated, Lincoln contrived to raise more troops without seeming to ask for them. He persuaded most Northern governors to prevail on him to accept their “offer” of 100,000 new troops, allegedly to finish off a faltering rebellion. Lincoln then accepted—after directing them to triple the offer to 300,000.

Following that charade, the U.S. Senate took up a bill to amend the Militia Act. In its final version, the bill authorized the executive branch to demand up to 100,000 more state militia, extending the length of federal service to nine months. It also allowed the federal government to require a draft in any state that failed to recruit its militia quota. The bill passed on July 17, 1862, and Lincoln signed it, affording the government its first indirect authority to force American citizens into uniform.

The 300,000-man call initially produced only a trickle of recruits, even after the War Department began offering a month’s pay and a quarter of the $100 bounty in advance, so Stanton wasted no time invoking the administration’s new authority. Ignoring the statu tory maximum of 100,000, on August 4 he ordered the states to raise 300,000 militia for nine months’ duty; any state that could not enlist enough volunteers by August 15 would have to conscript the deficiency under regulations set by the War Department. The states generally apportioned those quotas among the towns, using the most current census figures. If enough men enlisted from one town, the community would not have to endure a draft, meaning citizens who wished not to be drafted would clamor for generous bounties to lure volunteers. The orgy of war meetings to take place that month were designed partly to encourage volunteers but mainly to raise bounty money, first by subscription and later by taxation.

Stanton never revised his demand for three times the 100,000-man limit, but he never raised even the statutory 100,000. He forgave much of the quota by crediting surplus three-year volunteers as the equivalent of four nine-month men. That in spired towns to extend their bounties to three-year men, which helped stimulate recruiting among those regiments as well. Thus began the era of the bounty soldier.

The shorter term proved attractive to students, professors and farmers, assuring the interruption of only a single academic or agricultural year. It also appealed to many from better-educated backgrounds, who shrank from a three-year commitment in such an arduous enterprise. As a result, the rank and file of nine-month regiments were usually wealthier and better educated than soldiers in long-term volunteer organizations.

One analyst found that 41 percent of the three-year recruits from one Maine town in the summer of 1862 owned less than $200 in property, while only 14 percent of those who enlisted under that community’s nine-month quota during the same period fell below the $200 threshold. Zenas Haines, a newspaper editor who served nine months in the 44th Massachusetts, counted only five farmers among the 98 men in Company F, but there were four clergymen, five lawyers, two doctors, two engineers, four “literateurs,” two printers and musicians, a chemist, a druggist, a banker and a jeweler. Sixteen were Harvard alumni or underclassmen, and 22 identified themselves as graduate or undergraduate students of some institution. Pennsylvania started raising nine-month regiments immediately, and the 124th Pennsylvania left Harrisburg just eight days after Stanton’s proclamation. It was the first regiment to muster into federal service under the militia call, and by the end of the month the Keystone State had sent 16 more to the capital.

Most everyone referred to the nine-month troops as militia, and they often embraced the name, incorporating “volunteer militia” on their letterheads or later in regimental histories. Yet they differed from other volunteer units only in term length: All were troops raised by states for temporary service under federal authority. The nine-month levy could be raised by force, though, and some of it was, prompting many to call it the “drafted militia.”

By early September 1862, Robert E. Lee had pushed toward Washington, driving a new Union army under John Pope into the suburbs of the capital and persuading Union officials to recall McClellan’s army from the James River. When Lee crossed the Potomac into Maryland, McClellan chased after him with the battered remnants of Pope’s army and his own, augmenting those forces with thousands of untried new troops. Six of the earliest nine-month Pennsylvania regiments went with him, and five of them went into action at Antietam, losing more than one-eighth of their original number in the West Woods and at Bloody Lane. Their inexperience resulted in confusion on the battlefield, but so many other new regiments also saw their first fighting there that the militia were not noticeably singled out for criticism.

Seeing the elephant didn’t win the militiamen admission to the brotherhood. Veterans mocked them for their hefty bounties. One man from Maine saw his enlistment as a brief lark at government expense, with monthly pay, clothing and grub during the entire “excursion,” besides $150 additional bounty. Another recruit dispassionately listed an assortment of incentives, none of which involved patriotism: “It is the most favorable season of the year,” he explained; “the term is short, the bounty is ample, the draft is almost certain & may come at such a time that the conscripts will be in service during the hot weather.”

Plenty of old soldiers grumbled that the militia would serve far less time and endure much less hardship for a lot more money. Some Rhode Island towns had paid as much as $500 per man to fill two nine-month regiments, and men who had cost so much may have expected preferential treatment. After two weeks in camp, the colonel of one of those regiments objected that his command was assigned to “cleaning up everyone’s filth.” Of course, the rigors and privations of soldier life could easily disgust recruits. Several nine-month regiments from Maine disintegrated into a mob to protest the mess-hall food.

Even militia regiments that had been blooded had to face the sneers of comrades. At the end of a routine day’s march two weeks after Antietam, an Indiana colonel disgustedly observed that the 132nd Pennsylvania (one of those engaged at Bloody Lane) had left all but eight of its 550 men along the roadside by the time they made camp. The militiamen’s dainty sensibilities, finicky stomachs and tender feet seemed contemptible to veterans who had forgotten their own early trials.

“Bully for the twenty fifth,” wrote a three-year recruit in the 17th Maine, describing a nine-month regiment from the same neighborhood. “They marched four miles and lug[g]ed their knapsacks one day and stood the march well and now they have gone into winter quarters.” A Massachusetts lieutenant concurred, reporting: “These 9 months men are poor stuff. They think only of getting home again and have a terrible fear if there is any danger of a fight. Our 3 years men despise them.”

There was no disguising such animosity, and after six months of it Lieutenant Joseph Spafford of the 2nd Vermont Brigade finally vented. His brigade consisted entirely of nine-month regiments, while the 1st Vermont Brigade was composed of three-year regiments, and Spafford guessed that if the two commands camped near each other they would “fight each other like dogs & cats.” He lamented that both the three-year men and people back home seemed to hate them, disparaging them as “9 month beauties” and “the Pick Nic party.” Veterans frowned on them as mercenaries, while even civilians seemed annoyed that so few of them had ever been under fire. Spafford told his sister, “I suppose they would be perfectly satisfied if half of us could manage to get killed before our time is over.”

Spafford noted that he and his comrades had gone wherever they had been ordered. Of the 92 regiments raised for nine months, 36 spent at least part of their time with the Army of the Potomac. Nearly 2,500 of those men perished, 955 by hostile fire. A third of those fell at Fredericksburg, most dying in the dusk assault of the division commanded by Andrew Humphreys.

Humphreys had eight big Pennsylvania regiments in two brigades. One regiment was a year old, but the other seven had been raised in the late summer, including six regiments of drafted militia. They had spent the afternoon watching one brigade after another traverse an open plain under Confederate artillery fire, only to drop to the ground 100 yards shy of a sunken road and its stone retaining wall, over which blazed hundreds of Southern muskets. There, before Marye’s Heights, the survivors of each assault had taken refuge in a broad, shallow swale.

As the sun drooped toward the horizon, word came that it was the Pennsylvanians’ turn. Behind an embankment at the foot of the long slope Humphreys gathered Colonel Peter Allabach’s brigade—the 123rd, 131st and 133rd regiments of drafted militia, and the equally new 155th Pennsylvania Volunteers—and with Allabach he led them over the rise into a tempest of shellfire. When the front rank reached the remnants of the earlier assaults, they lay down with them to avoid the hail of bullets from the first line of Rebel infantry. Humphreys saw that their only hope lay in getting in among the enemy quickly, and he bellowed at them to rise up, fix bayonets and charge, but those who tried soon gave it up, hugging the ground wherever a depression offered safety.

Humphreys and most of his staff had had their horses shot from under them, so he took his courier’s mount and galloped back for Erastus Tyler’s brigade. Tyler’s only veterans were the 91st Pennsylvania, which had passed most of the year on garrison duty; the nine-month men of the 126th, 129th and 134th Pennsylvania had been with the army three months and seen no combat. Humphreys harangued them on the futility of trading volleys with the Confederates, sheltering behind a natural breastwork. They must not stop to fire, he warned; only a mad rush with the bayonet could succeed.

With daylight fading, Humphreys led this second assault onto the rising plain. Trotting toward the mass of prone Yankees, many of the Pennsylvanians took cover in the swale with them. A portion of the brigade lunged a few rods farther, but when the Confederate musketry intensified, they mistakenly stopped to return the fire. There the charge ended. Humphreys called together those who had dared run the gantlet and led them back to the embankment. He counted more than 1,000 casualties among his 4,500 men. A significant number who lay dead or dying—200—were nine-month men.

Despite that valiant example, the veterans and new three-year troops still disdained the militia regiments. By the midpoint of their terms, most of them had had plenty of time to cipher when they should return home. Many Massachusetts militia regiments ended up at New Bern, N.C., where one man wrote home in April that he had seen no enemy except a few prisoners, and had nothing to do but play baseball and pitch quoits. A man who had waited for the highest bounty before joining the 22nd Connecticut resented the slurs heaped on nine-month men who spent their terms lounging in camp, but he confessed that he was happy to be doing nothing.

The closer the militia came to going home, the more they seemed to shirk. They sometimes ad – mitted dodging duty, but outsiders also accused them of avoiding battle. The Indiana colonel who had snorted in October at the inability of the 132nd Pennsylvania to keep up on the march asserted in May that the nine-month men from New Jersey were “the worst set of cowards I ever saw.” More than one observer testified that the New Jersey militia ran “like sheep” at Chancellorsville.

The short-timer’s caution is proverbial in any era, but by the spring of 1863 most drafted militia seemed obsessed with safety. Whole brigades of them had gone to Nathaniel Banks, in Louisiana. When Banks appealed for volunteers to storm Port Hudson, his three-year regiments provided volunteers by scores, including 153 officers and men from the depleted 13th Connecticut. But from four nine-month regiments from Connecticut, amounting to well over 2,000 men, only four volunteered. Six other big militia regiments contributed an average of a dozen volunteers each, while five gave only a man or two; six supplied none at all. Even senior nine-month officers under Banks showed the white feather. When the 15th New Hamp – shire got into action at Port Hudson, the division commander caught the regiment’s colonel cowering in a ravine. The lieutenant colonel of the 28th Connecticut fell ill when his regiment came within three miles of Port Hud – son, lingering on the sick list until the place surrendered.

For most nine-month men, the battlefield didn’t pose the greatest threat. Nearly 90,000 men answered the militia call, and more than 6,000 of them died, but 77 percent succumbed to disease and only 23 percent to combat— well above the overall wartime ratio of 2-to-1. Thirty-three of the 92 militia regiments never suffered a single casualty, but some of them lost considerably more than their share to disease, especially in Louisiana. Mortality of 15 to 20 percent within three-quarters of a year was not uncommon for militia units in the bayous. The 16th New Hampshire saw no action, but one-fourth of the regiment never came home from Louisiana, and dozens who did survived only briefly: One year after they mustered in, 31 percent were dead.

Militia regiments began to pull out in May, and the leave-taking often fell short of cordial. When the 127th Pennsylvania paraded before the rest of the division on its way home, the veterans “groaned” them instead of cheering. The Pennsylvanians were “noted for their cowardice,” a Minnesota private informed his mother: They had been in only two battles—Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville—and had run in both of them. A corporal in the 100th Pennsylvania rankled at newspaper reports of the reception given the nine-month men of the 134th, which his comrades considered Pennsylvania’s poorest regiment, and a Maine captain begged his family not to greet that state’s returning militia as real soldiers.

By the end of June 1863, only the 2nd Vermont Brigade, two Pennsylvania regiments and the 27th Connecticut remained with the Army of the Potomac as it marched toward Gettysburg. Several homeward-bound nine-month regiments passed through Washington just then, and Edwin Stanton asked them to stop and protect the capital, but most of them refused. Only about 300 finally consented, after the flustered Stanton offered each of them a Medal of Honor; the War Department later recalled those medals to avoid cheapening the award.

Gettysburg gave the nine-month men their last chance for respect. They were counting down their days, but when the test came they did surprisingly well. Nearly 100 men from the 151st and 153rd Pennsylvania died at Gettysburg, and the 27th Connecticut fought in the Wheatfield, where its commanding officer was killed. Three regiments of the 2nd Vermont Brigade won the greatest laurels, though, during Longstreet’s grand assault on July 3, by wheeling out against the Rebel flank and shredding it with enfilading volleys. But five days later the first of those Vermonters started back to the Green Mountains, and they were all gone by the end of July. Most of the militia regiments posted to North Carolina had already mustered out, and those under Banks came home by the end of August. The last militia regiment, the 168th New York, left the service on October 31, 1863.

The rancor between “volunteers” and “militia” lingered long after that last tardy regiment of New Yorkers disbanded. Three-year men, many of whom had secured their own discharges after only a few months, continued to snub their nine-month comrades through half a century of veterans’ reunions.

Colonel Charles Wainwright, of the 1st New York Artillery, found the nine-month experiment “absurd,” and thought the administration might at least have consulted the calendar before considering it. “Any fool could have told them that the regiments would not be fit for service until last year’s campaign was over,” he mused just before Chancellorsville, “and that their time would be out just as this year’s commenced.”

The entire nine months was hardly sufficient to season men for active campaigning, but it was just long enough to expose them to the worst of soldiering, and that spring their letters were filled with repugnance for military service. Their reenlistment rates corroborated that disaffection. The Conscription Act passed in March 1863 exempted them from compulsory service, and they showed much less interest in volunteering than civilians who were eligible for the draft. Even three-year men reenlisted more enthusiastically than nine-month veterans: Of the original members who remained with the 21st Massachusetts after two years, 43 percent signed up for another three years, but barely 18 percent of those discharged from the 45th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia reenlisted. Militiamen who did re-up more often chose other short-term units or the heavy artillery, then regarded as the safest and most comfortable duty.

The nine-month venture betrayed Lincoln’s debilitating optimism. He had hoped for an overwhelming force to end the rebellion immediately, but the new troops were distributed too widely for decisive numbers anywhere, and they arrived in the field too green to be effective. By the time they were ready for combat, their enlistments had nearly ended. The militia levy accomplished little beyond convincing most men that they never wanted to be soldiers again—and as the Hundred Days fiasco of 1864 demonstrated, the administration learned no lessons from it.


Lincoln Prize–winner William Marvel is the author of many books on the war, including Lincoln’s Darkest Year: The War in 1862, published in 2008.

Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here