A week after rebel gunners fired on Fort Sumter unsavory New York City residents gathered in protest. Amid cries of “Death to the Plug Uglies!” a fiery William Wilson stepped before them , an angry horde of and “illustrated with his sword how they should hew their way, and said though he should be the first man slain, he had but one thing to ask, that was that each of his followers should secure his man and avenge his blood.” Flanked by a man brandishing a knife and a pistol, and another carrying a flag bearing the words “The Union Battalion of Zouaves. Death to Secessionists,” Wilson yelled for the men to swear to their promise. “Blood, Blood, Blood! We swear,” came the reply. And so, following Wilson’s violent exhortation, Wilson’s Fighting Zouaves was founded—probably the roughest bunch of Zouaves ever incorporated.
While fighting continued to rage on Civil War battlefields, the struggle to maintain armies went on across the North and South. Recruiting was easy enough—hardly necessary, in fact—during the gung-ho early days of the war, when whole companies and patriotic farm boys eager for adventure rushed by the thousands to help their side whip the other. State recruiting agents or influential citizens had only to nail up a few posters trumpeting the words “To Arms!” and lay out a sufficient number of enlistment forms. But after reading the growing casualty lists in their hometown newspapers, fewer and fewer service-age Americans found much inspiration in patriotic songs or old veterans waving the national flag.
Increasingly desperate for volunteers, recruiting officers on each side promised high enlistment bounties, ample food and clothing and the chance for friends and relatives to serve together. When that failed, the troop-starved Confederacy (in April 1862) followed by the Union (in March 1863) turned to national conscription, which created more problems than it solved. Subsequent attempts to enforce the draft sparked riots and drove draft dodgers into the mountains of the South and the slums of Northern cities. Recruiting and enrollment officers—often agents of the provost marshal’s department—scrambled to find their men among conscientious objectors, bounty jumpers, unwilling paid substitutes and men who claimed exemption due to some feigned illness. And if the agents did manage to get a few of those men into army camps, most quickly disappeared again or proved useless in a fighting unit.
Field regiments decimated by disease, battle deaths and a lack of replacements sometimes dispatched squads of their own officers—even whole companies—to their home turf in an effort to round up new recruits, often with little success. After two weeks back in New York in 1864, for example, a frustrated Captain Commodore P. Vedder of the 154th New York admitted, “I have the honor to report that I have up to date obtained only three recruits.” Union officers sent into Southern states to recruit black troops late in the war sometimes experienced similar frustration. In Tennessee James T. Ayers cited a litany of complaints among potential recruits: “‘Rumities or pane in Back or Pneumonia or Arm bent or tooth ache or pain in Ear’ or Some Excuse, till I am Hartily sick of hearing them any more and hope to get Dismissed from this Recruiting business.”
In Providence agents organizing the 7th Rhode Island Volunteers “received a bonus of three dollars for each man secured and marvelous were the methods resorted to by each in laudable rivalry to lengthen his own pay roll.” Desperate or corrupt agents or recruitment “brokers” signed virtually whomever they could find—including immigrants who couldn’t speak a word of English and the physically and mentally infirm. At least one agent resorted to drugging a recruit, who later awoke to find himself in the Army. Another frustrated officer tried to trample a draft evader with his horse.
Recruiters naturally inspired hatred among those they tracked, and sometimes found their beat as hazardous as the battlefield. “We the undersigned will give you our advice for your own good,” one agent was warned. “If you don’t lay aside the enrolling, your life will be taken tomorrow night.” Enrolling agents were mugged and their records stolen; some were even murdered.
If conscription was dreaded, it at least spurred volunteering. Ultimately, recruiters probably had their most success within the ranks of the long-suffering two- or three-year veterans already in the field, who—committed to their cause and comrades and sickened by the quality of new recruits—often re-upped and agreed to see the war to its end in exchange for little more than back pay and an immediate furlough.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.