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American Civil War Life: The Union’s Path To War - The Call To Arms

Updated on July 23, 2018
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I'm a Sr. Financial Analyst from Long Island, NY and am an American Civil War buff and Living Historian (Company H, 119th NY Volunteers).

First Call: Militia

In response to the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln immediately issued a call to the loyal states for 75,000 Militiamen to serve the federal government for 90 days. This was the maximum number of Militiamen and length of service allowable by law. Their duties included:

  • suppressing rebellious armed forces
  • maintaining, executing, and enforcing laws in the seceded states
  • retaking Federal property, such as those forts and installations that had been seized
  • defending the loyal states of the Union
  • defending the U.S. government in the nation’s capitol, Washington City

Lincoln also ordered the commencement of a naval blockade of the port cities in the rebelling states. This was done in order to disrupt their overseas commerce and prevent their importing war materiel from Europe.

The need for calling up thousands of Militiamen for federal service was due to the state of the U.S. military at the time. The existing U.S. Army was very small, numbering only about 15,000 to 16,000 officers and men. It was also scattered about the country, mostly around the western frontiers as protection for overland travelers and settlers from marauding Native American war parties.

In order to subjugate such a sizeable and populous region as the rebellious states, a much larger, and more readily available, army was needed. The Militiamen were called upon to provide that army.

Lincoln's call for 75,000 militiamen
Lincoln's call for 75,000 militiamen
States' Quotas for militiamen
States' Quotas for militiamen
Recruiting Poster for New York troops
Recruiting Poster for New York troops
Sketch - a recruiting office
Sketch - a recruiting office

The Situation: April - May 1861

Seven loyal states, in response to the call for Militiamen, refused to respond accordingly. These were slave-holding states that bordered the novice Confederacy. Due to the many commonalities with the seceded states, these seven refused to assist in their subjugation. These states were: Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas. It remained to be seen what these seven states would do when the troops were put in motion.

Though the remaining loyal states were doing their part, the Lincoln Administration knew the Militia forces assembling were not going to get the job done alone, not with the numbers and period of service restricted as it was. Also, many Militia units were not all that were desired. Some units lacked proper strength in manpower or firepower, and nearly all were low in quality of training. Therefore, Lincoln acted again.

Sketch - a militia unit gathers together
Sketch - a militia unit gathers together
A New York militiaman with a servant
A New York militiaman with a servant
Enthusiastic militiamen form a human pyramid
Enthusiastic militiamen form a human pyramid
Troops of the 22nd NY Militia
Troops of the 22nd NY Militia
Painting - 6th MA militia battle a rebellious mob in Baltimore, MD
Painting - 6th MA militia battle a rebellious mob in Baltimore, MD

Second Call: Volunteers

Another call for troops was made by Lincoln on May 3, 1861. In this second call, the standing U.S. Army (aka. the Regulars) and U.S. Navy were authorized to increase in size, and recruit men for an enlistment term of three years. The U.S. Navy was as similarly ill-prepared for war as was the Army, with most ships well off at sea or badly in need of repair or condemnation. The increase in naval strength was necessary just to implement the blockade of Southern ports.

This call also sought 42,034 Volunteers to serve three year terms in the army. Congress confirmed this call, and went much further, authorizing the recruitment of 500,000 Volunteers, though not only for the term of three years. To get enough Volunteers at the time, and for various needs or emergencies during the course of the War, Volunteer enlistment terms ranged from six months to three years.

Poster calls for New Hampshire Volunteers
Poster calls for New Hampshire Volunteers

The Situation: May – June 1861

Of the seven loyal states that refused to send Militia forces, the second call for troops was no more welcome by them than the first. In fact, for four of these states - Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas - it was the last straw. These states officially seceded later in May and in June, 1861 and joined the Confederacy almost immediately afterward.

Of the three remaining states, Maryland, Missouri and Kentucky, none were in favor of military aggression upon the South. Missouri and Kentucky aligned themselves with neither North nor South, and refused to raise troops for what they knew was to be a force of invasion upon the Confederacy (though recruitment in these states was performed clandestinely by both sides). Maryland only sent troops for the protection of the capitol and for the state, not for any invasion force. These three states became known as the Border States as they straddled the “border” between the CSA and the USA. The effect on the families in these states was polarizing, with differing opinions splitting blood relatives apart. The term “Brother versus Brother” was never more apparent or accurate than in the Border States.

Meanwhile, in the rebelling states, troops were also being raised, and Washington City was in a very dire predicament. With one seceded state, Virginia, on the immediate border, and another state, Maryland, which came very close to secession, on the other three sides, Washington City was nearly surrounded by hostile territory. Thoughts of a rebel invasion of the Union’s capitol were on everyone’s minds. Troops were urgently needed for protection of the capital.

Ladies with the US flag they sewed for a Volunteer unit recruited in their area
Ladies with the US flag they sewed for a Volunteer unit recruited in their area
Painting - a lady admires a Volunteer officer's sword prior to their farewell
Painting - a lady admires a Volunteer officer's sword prior to their farewell
Volunteers of the 26th New York Regiment
Volunteers of the 26th New York Regiment

Afterword

The infusion of Militia and Volunteer forces swelled the quantity of troops in the Army of the United States. However, their lack of experience and effective training indicated that the quality of this large force was quite low for the time being.

The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: The Union’s Path To War – Those Who Volunteered.

Militia form for a military parade
Militia form for a military parade

© 2013 Gary Tameling

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