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The Bone and Sinue of the Population: Western Soldiers, Masculinity, and the Fight Against Slavery During the American Civil War

Peter C. Luebke

In this paper, I make several main points. In short, I argue that when considering the ideology of Union soldiers--or how they thought about what the Civil War meant and their role in it--we must pay attention to subcultures. I maintain that one form of subculture, one with a vast importance, is regional in nature. That is, soldiers from the same general area exhibited commonalities of thought that are missed if they are not placed in that context. This paper uses as a case study white Union troops from the Western states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin to show how particular regional ideas of masculinity helped shape ideology during the Civil War. Put simply, I read soldier writings from the above areas, which shared a similar pattern of settlement to see what commonalities emerged. I found that troops in these states defined themselves against enemies—both internal and external—who placed self-interest above patriotism and honor.

Let me begin by offering an anecdote from John Billing's well known memoir of solider life, Hardtack and Coffee. Billings, in one chapter, describes the creation of corps badges during the Civil War. He relates how Gen. Philip Kearney introduced identifying badges in 1862 after an encounter with stragglers along the line of march. Kearney, upon coming across a number of soldiers sitting by the side of the road, had roundly castigated them, "emphasized by a few expletives." The men in question, rather than doing anything, told Kearney off, saying that they did not belong to Kearney's command and thus he had no authority over them. In consequence, Kearney had his own soldiers wear an identifying patch, so that he might be able to tell them apart from others. Later, in 1863, Gen. Joseph Hooker instituted a similar system of badges for all the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac. Thus, what quickly became an emblem of pride for soldiers, had begun as a way to identify malingerers.1

Armies outside of the Army of the Potomac took longer to adopt the badge system. Billings relates how the 15th Army Corps, a unit of the Army of the Tennessee, received its badge, which featured a cartridge pouch emblazoned with the legend "40 rounds." In the fall of 1863, the 11th and 12th Corps, both lately from the Army of the Potomac, had been sent West, and they continued their practice of wearing the corps badges. The Western troops did not take too kindly to those from the East, which led, as Billings put it, "to some sharp tilts." Supposedly, the 15th Corps badge came from an encounter between a Westerner and an Easterner, when the Eastern soldier expressed surprise that the Westerner did not have a corps badge. The Western soldier, in response, "clap[ped] his hand on his cartridge box" and announced that he could be identified by "forty rounds" and asked "Can you show me [better]?"2 The implication, of course, was that Western troops didn't need identifying badges, because they marched to the front with a full cartridge box.

This story, will amusing, hints at the larger dimensions of the how Northern soldiers perceived themselves and their struggles during the War for the Union. In fact, the tension between the East and the West just alluded to touched upon aspects of regional identity, which in turn helps draw into clear focus differences in masculinity and class. Western soldiers saw themselves as the true "Bone and Sinue of the Population." They believed that they, more so than Easterners, represented the true loyal population of the North. In their eyes, Easterners spent their time trying to gain personal rank and acclaim, thereby abetting the rebellious Confederates. In contrast, Westerners demonstrated the true spirit of patriotism, willing to sacrifice and shoulder the burdens of war. Thus, Westerners tended to advocate extreme measures that could bring the war to a speedier close. For instance, they combined an early acceptance of Emancipation as a necessary war measure with virulent racism.

Historians who have written about common soldiers during the Civil War have often used different analytic lenses than regional identification, thereby missing how these subcultures helped shape ideology. James McPherson, Reid Mitchell, Chandra Manning, and others have looked at Union soldiers as part of an unvariegated whole based around common ideas of Victorian-era restraint, manners, gentility, and politeness.3 Yet these ideas of men and behavior remained particular to the urbanized Northeast and had not reached vast portions of the agricultural west, where men defined themselves based on their "democratic energy, capitalist ambition, and sense of mission" to wrest productivity from the soil.4 Broadly construed, these ideals also cut across partisan political lines. As economic historian Jonathan Glickstein has pointed out, even Democrats in the west possessed a faith in "the capacity of free labor to exclude and otherwise completely prevail over slave labor in the territories without the assistance of a congressional ban" and the "capacity of free farmers and wage-earners to coexist in any case in proximity to slaveowners."5 Indeed, western Democrats instead focused on hostility towards "business and professional elites" who stood in opposition to the "nation's virtuous workers."6 Despite their earlier willingness to tolerate slavery and slaveholders, Westerners saw secession as a craven attempt by Southerners to enrich themselves at the expense of the nation.

Their attitudes that men worked and produced from the soil informed how they saw the Civil War. Not only had Southerners, who profited from the labor of others, sought to destroy the Union, but also enemies within the North sought to profit from the war. These profiteers ranged from Easterners, who Westerners saw as effete incompetents and schemers, to Copperheads, who stayed at home to rake in money while displaying rank treason. In turn, many Western troops staked out positions in opposition to these groups, advocating a robust policies that sought to end the war and demanded sacrifice. As part of this process, Westerners came to embrace emancipation and demand the enlistment of African American troops into the Union armies. However, this did not, in turn, lead them to advocate egalitarian policies.

The primary villains of the Civil War for Westerners were the secessionists. Westerners had been content to allow slavery to continue where it existed, though significant portions of them opposed its spread.7 Very few Westerners, however, would have supported emancipation on the eve of the Civil War. This live and let live attitude was overturned by secession. It became apparent that Southern leaders had been acting in bad faith all along, and that their professions of patriotism had been empty promises. Southerners had sought the Union only out of self-interest, and when they thought their interests had been threatened they sought to destroy the whole project. And Westerners identified the Southern slaveholding elite as the source of the Civil War. This sentiment drew upon antebellum ideas of the Slave Power conspiracy.

Western troops railed against this slaveholding oligarchy in their letters. One soldier remarked that “the rulers and leaders, who are the few intelligent and educated” kept the rest of the South in ignorance, because “a man who thinks for himself cannot generally be…led like a bear by the nose.” He wished that the “eyes of the masses” could be “opened to the fact that their leaders and masters are not really gods, and that industry and intelligence and not wealth alone are the nerves and sinews of a nation.” He also hoped that “slave aristocracy will give way to northern thrift, education, and enterprise.”8 These sentiments showed some of the ways in which northerners, and westerners, conceived of the war. Industry and intelligence stood as the measure of a man, not wealth alone. Note also the preeminence placed upon thrift and enterprise.

Western conceptions of masculinity came into sharp relief when westerners discussed the performance of eastern armies. Western troops, accustomed to success against fumblingly incompetent Confederates such as Braxton Bragg, Gideon Pillow, and Leonidas Polk attributed the failures of the Army of the Potomac to defeat Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to deficiencies in Easterners. One Illinois private wrote after that Lee's invasion of Maryland in 1862 cause "general indignation" and the men "impute it all to a lack of soldierly courage in officers and men."9 One Illinois captain thought that the Army of the Potomac didn't do much beyond "ditch-digging," while another wrote his wife that the "general feeling is that the Potomac Army is only good to draw greenbacks and occupy winter quarters."10 Francis T. Sherman fumed that "the Grand Army of the Potomac, the pet of the Union…boasts of what it is going to do" instead of actually doing anything.11 Westerners tended to think that "the Army of the Potomac was a 'paper-collar,' 'soft-bread,' feather-bed,' 'review and dress-parade' army and that it would not fight."12

These general gripes sharpened into critiques of Eastern "style." Such language indicated that Easterners spent too much time on how they looked and acting the part of soldiers. Implicitly, Westernerss thought themselves actual soldiers. Thomas Davis, of the 18th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, wrote home about how "the boys say we are now soldiering in Potomac-style;" that meant instead of fighting, the troops would "soon draw paper collars, red neck ties, straw, and postage stamps and boot-blacking and having to do and get furloughs every six weeks."13 In essence, Western troops saw themselves as embodying the true spirit of the country; they devoted themselves to fighting while Easterners spent their time and effort merely on looking good.

Taylor Peirce of the 22nd Iowa Infantry Regiment wrote home that Easterners "have not the sense of fight that our western boys have for the reason that the officers put on too much style." He thought that Western troops fought better because "we fight from inherent feelings of right and manhood" while Easterners were "so d----d selfisfh."14 He also remarked that the Army of the Potomac was "made up of the most…worthless part of the Population and the officers are men of fine haired[,] milk and water kind either out of some law office where they had been setting for two or three years trying to get hold of an Idea, or else some clerk from behind a dry goods counter whose only thought was to oil their mustache and show their silly selves to some sillier young lady." Both lawyers and clerks didn’t produce much themselves; as Peirce put it, they tried to get ideas or idled about. Westerners, on the other hand, got something accomplished, and could stand hardship. They, as Peirce noted, were "drawn from the bone and Sinue of the Population."15

This sense that people besides soldiers stood to profit from the war also extended to politicians at home. Colonel Francis T. Sherman of the 88th Illinois Infantry Regiment indicted northern politicians as "designing men who wished for nothing more than their personal aggrandizement and to gratify an inordinate ambition to rule."16 Sgt. John Quincy Adams Campbell of the 5th Iowa Infantry Regiment likewise averred that he had enlisted without hope of "honor or glory," unlike those who acted out of self-interest solely to "secure their own promotion."17 Western soldiers defined their contribution as selfless, honorable, and therefore manly. They perceived themselves as apart from politicians and Easterners, who akin to secessionists, saw the war as a great opportunity for personal advancement. In some cases, Western troops saw collusion between the Confederates and the self-seeking men in the North.

Private Charles O. Musser placed blame for the length of the war on profiteers at home. He worried “as long as there is so many Speculators at the head of the armys, there will be war.”18 He lamented “‘Green Back’ Patriotism” and thought that “this war has been prolonged by the influence of them miserable, low flung Villains wearing the Uniforms of American Army officers.”19 Thomas Davis thought “they seem to have made more disign in making big officers and killing privates than they have in putting down rebellion.”20 Here the concern about people making a profit off of the war, and advancing themselves, at the expense of those who would fight was clear. Western troops were on the look-out for self-interest.

Western attitudes to Easterners also transferred to Copperheads. In the broadest sense, Copperheads were antiwar Northerners, usually associated with the Democratic Party. Fears grew that the Copperheads would create a fire in the rear--a fifth column--to undermine the Union, and scholars continue to debate whether they posed an actual threat as opposed to solely a perceived one.21 Disgust for the Copperheads represented a divide between the Western soldiers and their idea of what it meant to be a man and serve, rather than a partisan political divide. One soldier explained that "Our company is composed of Democratic materials of the Simon pure," and that the men at home who "calls them selves democrats is not Democrats but they are impostors trying to deceive the true patriots."22 Sgt. William Bluffton Miller of the 75th Indiana Infantry regiment recorded that "I was once a Douglas Democrat but I am now for the Union 'right or wrong'." He thought that "a party Set of men who will encourage the Southern States from the North now are not fit to live under the old flag and the sooner they are put out of the way the Better."23

Hatred of Copperheads helped push soldiers to support the end of slavery as a war measure because it would strike at the heart of slaveholders and enrage the traitors in the North. Joseph W. Young, although a self-professed Democrat explained that "I do not allow any man to call me a party man nor do I allow my self to be a conservative man. I am Radcal in my views in Regard to this war."24 What Young meant by “radcal” was that he supported Emancipation. George Squier talked of slavery as “the system of oppression practiced by the southern gentleman—not the negro, for the negro is no moore responsible for this war than is the steel blade which the assassin plunges into the heart of his victim is responsible for the deed of murder.” He blamed secession on “the fierce passion of slaveholding politicians, the…lordly, overbearing Southerners.” In his opinion, Northerners had “submitted…with the docility of slaves as we were, and it was only by the action of our oppressors that we threw off this yoke. They forced us to vindicate our manhood, not only to slavery but to death.”25 A soldier writing anonymously to a Wisconsin newspaper stated that “soldiers are universally pleased to see that the President has not been swayed” from emancipation “by the pressure brought to bear upon him, by tender conscience politicians and rebel sympathizers.” He continued that “no one can be in active service six months, no matter what his political predilections were when he entered the army, without having the conclusion forced on him that the very blow struck at slavery is a blow to crush the rebellion and restore the Union.”26 These passages illustrate how many Western soldiers tied together their ideas of masculinity and the need for emancipation. The system of slavery had been emasculating to Northerners because it enabled Southern politicians to have dominion over white men in the North. In this account, the dominion of white slaveholders over their African American chattel was secondary to the corrosive effects it had on white Northerners.

At times, the desire to punish the Southern oligarchs and their Northern supporters overwhelmed other considerations. Thomas J. Davis wrote “I would almost give my existence to see every” African American “removed from the face of the American continent and the whole Southern Confederacy crushed to the earth, never to rise and every northern officeseeking traitor piled on the ruins, there to moulder through eternal ages as a public example to future traitorous rotton-hearted, office-seeking, political aspirants.”27 When put in these terms, we can see how the different strands of sentiment that I have discussed came together during the war. Western soldiers placed a preeminence on what they saw as their manly duty to serve selflessly and virtuously to save the Union. In doing so, they faced not only the domestic aristocracy in the South, the “Slave Power Oligarchy” or “the Chivalry,” but also the Northern allies, who instead of selfless service sought personal advancement. Here, the disdain for the white-glove, paper-collar Eastern troops dovetailed with hatred of secessionists to bring westerners to support emancipation even as they wished every black person to be “removed from the face of the American continent.”

The same impulses that led soldiers to support emancipation could lead them to oppose the enlistment of African American troops. Allen Geer recorded in his diary that he “had earnest discussion upon the policy of arming negroes to fight our battles for us. I am conscientiously opposed to it in every manner…because it is inhuman,…unprecedented, and…because it would be selfish and cowardly on our part to bring a people into this war to fight our battles and lose their lives who have no interest in the result.”28 Andrew McGarrah of the 63rd Indiana Infantry Regiment advanced a similar argument; he feared that if “they come in to United States Service and help us restore our union then of course they would consider and justly too that they were entitled to the fellowship of the american people, and equalize themselves with us, & that will never do.”29 These troops thought that arming African Americans undercut their own masculinity; in their view, white Northerners should fight their own battles and not rely upon others.

Many soldiers, however, came around to a grudging support of enlisting African Americans, but usually did so on pragmatic grounds, or on the basis that it would upset Southerners and their Northern supporters. William Bluffton Miller wholeheartedly supported the policy, noting in his diary that an African American soldier could “stop a Rebbel Bullet as well as a white soldier.”30 A soldier who wrote to a Wisconsin newspaper pointed out that “it will be a bitter pill to the ‘chivalry’ indeed, but it would be the ‘most unkindest cut of all’ to the ‘dear Copperheads.’”31 Charles Wills told his wife that “I would rather fight the war out without arming them…but I don’t pretend to set my voice up against what our President says or does…I have no trouble believing that the Rebels should lose every slave they possess; and I experience some pleasure in taking them when ordered to.”32 Here, then, we have echoes of what Thomas J. Davis said.

Soldiers from Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin shared a concept of masculinity rooted in the ideal of the hardy frontier farmer, who set aside his plow and shouldered a musket in defense of law and order, an idea that distinguished them from their comrades. This idea of the frontier farmer had a long heritage in America, but the particular iteration of the idea, combined with free labor ideals and an abiding racism, marked the masculinity of western troops. They zealously defended their independence; reflecting the dangerous environment of the West, they put a premium on honor, courage, and grit rather than restraint or refinement. These values helped to sustain the soldiers through personal hardships and flagging morale. Ironically, their dedication to destroying the Confederacy in the most expedient way possible led them to embrace emancipation, despite deep personal dislike for African Americans. Contact with African Americans only intensified their fears that black people degraded whites in proximity to them. In this fashion, Western troops fought to destroy the institution of slavery while leaving antebellum prejudices and anxieties regarding African Americans relatively untouched.


The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of the United States Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.

1 John D. Billings, Hardtack and Coffee or The Unwritten Story of Army Life (Boston: George M. Smith, 1887), 255. Billings also draws lengthy direct quotations from E.D. Townsend, Anecdotes of the Civil War in the United States (New York: D. Appleton, 1884).

2 Billings, 262.

3 For instance, see Jams M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), Reid M. Mitchell, Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Experiences (New York: Viking, 1988), and Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007). One exception remains an article that considers sectional conflict between Northern troops within the context of combat effectiveness, only. See Phillip Cuccia, "'Gorillas' and White Glove Gents: Union Soldiers in the Red River Campaign," Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 36 No. 4 (Autumn 1995).

4 Edward Watts, In This Remote Country: French Colonial Culture in the Anglo-American Imagination, 1760-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 3-4.

5 Jonathan A. Glickstein, American Exceptionalism, American Anxiety: Wages, Competition, and Degraded Labor in the Antebellum United States (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002), 159.

6 Glickstein, 212.

7 For the best account of the fight to prevent slavery’s expansion, see Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970). For the attitudes of westerners about slavery, see Eugene H. Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967), 130; and V. Jacque Voegeli, Free but Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro During the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).

8 The Story of My Campaign: The Civil War Memoir of Francis T. Moore, Second Illinois Cavalry, edited by Thomas Bahde with a foreword by Michael Fellman (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011), 86, 145, 163.

9 Diary entry, 9 September 1862, in The Civil War Diary of Allen Morgan Geer, Twentieth Regiment, Illinois Volunteers, edited by Mary Ann Andersen (Denver: Robert C. Appleman, 1977), 53.

10 Bahde, 189; and Letter, 21 November 1862, in Army Life of an Illinois Soldier: Including a Day-by-Day Record of Sherman's March to the Sea, compiled by Mary E. Kellogg with a foreword by John Y. Simon (reprint; Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996 [1906]), 144.

11 Francis T. Sherman to Father, [June] 1863, in Quest for a Star: The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Colonel Francis T. Sherman of the 88th Illinois, edited by C. Knight Aldrich (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 45.

12 [E. R. Brown], The Twenty-Seventh Indiana Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion 1861 to 1865, First Division 12th and 20th Corps: A History of Its Recruiting, Organization, Camp Life, Marches and Battles, Together with a Roster of the Men Composing It, and the Names of All Those Killed in Battle or Who Died of Disease, and As Far As Can Be Known, of Those Who Were Wounded ([Monticello, IN]: n.p., [1899]), 438.

13 Thomas J. Davis to Wife, 28 May 1865 in The Badax Tigers: From Shiloh to the Surrender with the 18th Wisconsin Volunteers, edited by Thomas P. Nanzing (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 324.

14 Taylor Peirce to Catharine, 7 November 1863, in Dear Catharine, Dear Taylor: The Civil War Letters of a Union Soldier and His Wife, edited by Richard L. Kiper (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 153; and Perice to Catharine, 11 May 1864, ibid., 207.

15 Peirce to Catharine, 7 August 1864, ibid., 247-48.

16 Francis T. Sherman to Father, 3 April 1863, in Aldrich, 34.

17 John Quincy Adams Campbell diary entry, 9 July 1861, in The Union Must Stand: The Civil War Diary of John Quincy Adams Campbell, Fifth Iowa Volunteer Infantry, edited by Mark Grimsley and Todd D. Miller (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000),, 2-3.

18 Charles O. Musser letter fragment, 9 February 1863, in Soldier Boy: The Civil War Letters of Charles O. Musser, 29th Iowa, edited by Barry Popchock (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995), 25.

19 Charles O. Musser to Father, 17 January 1864, in Popchock, 103.

20 Thomas J. Davis to Sister, 17 February 1863, in Nanzing, 144.

21 For contrasting views, see Frank L. Klement, The Copperheads in the Middle West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 196), and Jennifer L. Weber, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

22 Joseph W. Young to Father, 20 April 1863, in The Personal Letters of Captain Joseph Willis Young, 97th Regiment Indiana Volunteers, 4th Division, 15th A.C., Army of the United States, Civil War, edited by Oscar F. Curtis (Monroe: Monroe County Historical Soceity, 1962), 22-23.

23 William Bluffton Miller diary entry, 24 January 1863, in Fighting for Liberty and Right: The Civil War Diary of William Bluffton Miller, First Sergeant, Company K, Seventy-Fifth Indiana Volunteer Infantry, edited by Jeffrey L. Patrick and Robert J. Willey (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005), 62.

24 Joseph W. Young to Father, 20 April 1863, in Curtis, 22.

25 George W. Squier to Ellen, 5 October 1864, in This Wilderness of War: The Civil War Letters of George W. Squier, Hoosier Volunteer, edited by Julian A. Doyle, John David Smith, and Richard M. McMurry (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998), 89-90.

26 “Grape,” 9 December 1862, in This Wicked Rebellion: Wisconsin Soldiers Write Home, edited by John Zimm with a foreword by Michael Edmonds (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2012), 207-08.

27 Thomas J. Davis to Sister, 17 February 1863, in Nanzing, 143.

28 Diary entry, 17 July 1862, in Anderson, 43.

29 Andrew J. McGarrah to Parents, Brothers, and Sisters, 8 March 1863, in Indiana’s Civil War: The Civil War in Documents, edited by Richard F. Nation and Stephen E. Towne (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009), 199.

30 William Bluffton Miller diary entry, 20 February 1863, in Patrick and Willey, 69.

31 D.W., 24 April 1863, in Zimm, 141.

32 Letter, 29 May 1863, in Kellogg, 176-77.

Published: Wed Aug 23 14:18:59 EDT 2017