A Great Revolution in Feeling: The American Civil War in Niles and Grand Rapids, Michigan

Article excerpt

Shortly before eating his noonday meal on March 12, 1862, Charles Phillips of Niles, Michigan, received a telegram that announced the death of his son, William Phillips. William, who had been serving in the Third Michigan Cavalry, caught a fever shortly after the battle of Fort Donelson on February 16 and succumbed to disease in the early hours of March 3. The Reverend Phillips, preaching the next Sunday from his pulpit at Trinity Episcopal Church, urged his congregation to remain steadfast in its support for the war. It was the Lenten season, so he had even more reason to urge them to take up both "the sword and cross that Christ calls us to bear." (1)

One month later, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, located one hundred miles to the north of Niles, fifteen-year-old Rebecca Richmond noted in her diary that a "tremendous battle" was being waged in western Tennessee. Today that battle is known as Shiloh, but for Rebecca it was notable for destroying what had been up to that point unanimous support for the war, as "disagreements appear common among us, and sharp words are spoken quickly." Indeed, the diarist's father, William Richmond, a leading Democrat in Grand Rapids, was among those who "quickly question[ed] the words of Lincoln." (2)

These two episodes from western Michigan in the spring of 1862 hint at an important aspect of the American Civil War and help answer longstanding, much-debated questions about that war: who enlisted to fight it and why? What motivated William Phillips and the thousands of others who joined the Union army during the Civil War? Did they fight to preserve the Union or to abolish slavery? Were they fighting because they needed a job, because they were too poor to purchase substitutes, or because they were merely hoping to escape boredom? Likewise, what shaped the attitudes and opinions of the soldiers' neighbors back home, like Rebecca Richmond and her father? And how did these motives and opinions persist or change during the war?

For generations historians have argued whether the behavior of the North's soldiers and citizenry, was determined by economics or by ideology, by class or by cultural values. Yet simply to look at these factors is to ignore the transformation of the Civil War from a war fought to preserve the Union to one fought to transform the nation via the ideology of the Republican Party. This article, by analyzing enlistment patterns in Niles and Grand Rapids, will argue that while ideology, and to a lesser degree economics, influenced enlistment, these factors changed and enlistment patterns changed with them over the course of the Civil War. Events on the battlefront altered opinion and behavior on the home front: the fates of the William Phillipses of the North affected the attitudes of the Rebecca Richmonds. Nor is this the only way in which the element of time matters to this story. As the Civil War dragged on, Northern opinion seemed to backtrack; after an initial surge of patriotic unity, the partisan and ideological disagreements that had divided Northerners before the war increasingly resurfaced.

These divisions disappeared for a short time at the start of the Civil War, but they quickly returned. Nowhere can we see these patterns better than in enlistments in the Northern army throughout the conflict. In the first year of the Civil War, all segments of Northern society actively supported the war for Union. Most Democrats and Republicans, evangelicals and Catholics, immigrants and natives, farmers and factory workers supported the war enthusiastically, as can be seen by the nearly equal enlistment rates of these groups. This early Northern unity arose both from an expectation that the war would be brief and from a universal distaste for the South and its culture. Yet after the bloody battle of Shiloh, the prewar divisions in the North reappeared, as the war became less a bipartisan struggle to preserve the Union and more a partisan Republican effort to end slavery. …