Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

I for One Am Ready to Do My Part: The Initial Motivations That Inspired Men from Northern Illinois to Enlist in the U.S. Army, 1861-1862

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

I for One Am Ready to Do My Part: The Initial Motivations That Inspired Men from Northern Illinois to Enlist in the U.S. Army, 1861-1862

Article excerpt

Illinoisans! Look at the issue and do not falter. Your all is at stake. What are your beautiful prairies, comfortable mansions and rich harvests? - What is even life worth, if your government is lost? Your all and your children's all - all that is worth living or dying for, is at stake. Then rally once again for the old flag, for our country, union and liberty.

Richard Yates, August 5, 1862

In April 1861, in response to the firing on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln called for seventy-five-thousand volunteers to fill the ranks of the U.S. army. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Men residing in the northern states enlisted in such numbers that thousands had to be turned away, many then joining units from other states. During the first two years of the war, Illinois mustered over eightythousand men into Federal service. Of these men, seventeen - thousand or 21 percent came from the fourteen northern most counties of the state, excluding Cook County. During the first two years of the war, over one-quarter of all military-age males from northern Illinois enlisted.1

Scholars have devoted considerable effort to determining who enlisted in the Union army and to understanding their motivation for doing so. But their research is heavily focused on the eastern states. Historians have neglected to undertake a study of motivations for enlisting in the rural Midwest. Rural northern Illinois, a region that excludes Cook County and Chicago, provides an excellent place to determine whether the motivations that historians have identified as important also inspired ordinary Midwestemers to enlist.2

James McPherson, in his For Cause and Comrades, examines a representative cross section of the volunteer forces to determine why men fought in the Civil War. His analysis shows preservation of the union, patriotism, and concerns about masculine identity as key to understanding the motivations of early volunteers. McPherson borrows from John A. Lynn a nomenclature useful for understanding volunteers' motivations for enlisting and fighting in wars. Lynn's nomenclature breaks into three useful categories the motivation of fighting men: initial, sustaining and combat. Initial motivation refers to forces that drove volunteers to leave family and friends and to prepare for war. Sustaining motivation explains why men stayed in the military during wartime. The hardships of camp life and the potential for combat, death, and disease ensured that not all who volunteered remained in the fight. Finally, combat motivation seeks to determine why men fought. During the Civil War, large numbers of men "faced the elephant" - military slang for confronting actual combat - and Lynn uses combat motivation to explain why volunteers fought despite "the overwhelming presence of fear."3

A desire to preserve the Union accounted for the initial motivation of significant numbers of volunteers from northern Illinois who enlisted in the army. That desire was nurtured in an atmosphere of patriotic fervor. The fervor owed to their understanding of national history, which they used to cast themselves as the heirs of the revolutionary generation and as the protectors of liberty and freedom. The southern states' refusal to accept the popular election of Lincoln and their insistence on the right to secede challenged northern views of the national union and the meaning of the election of 1860. Starting in April 1861, men in northern Illinois were presented with the opportunity to act upon those beliefs. Defense of their nation was not the only issue that dwelled on the hearts and minds of the volunteers. Volunteers also approached things more pragmatically. Men saw an opportunity to advance themselves in life through military service. Financial gains, upward mobility in social status, and, in some cases, just a simple break from the boredom prevalent in youth all presented tantalizing opportunities to elevate themselves or their families beyond what they had known prior to the conflict. …

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