Rich Man's War, Rich Man's Fight: Class, Ideology, and Discipline in the Union Army

By Foote, Lorien | Civil War History, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Rich Man's War, Rich Man's Fight: Class, Ideology, and Discipline in the Union Army


Foote, Lorien, Civil War History


In September 1861, for three successive days, an officer of the 2d Massachusetts tied a private to a tree for one hour. A courts martial had found the man guilty of drunkenness and insubordination. Regiments encamped near the Second noticed this punishment and disapproved. On the third day, as the man hung bound to the tree, a large crowd gathered around the edge of the Second's camp. Hurling insults at the officers, many men in the crowd took up a cry of "cut him down!" The crowd quickly became a mob that was not easily subdued. After this incident, officers from several regiments approached Colonel Gordon, commander of the Second, and asked him to punish the man in a more private place. Gordon refused. Wilder Dwight, the Major of the 2d Massachusetts, commented bitterly to his family that the Second was the only regiment that attempted to maintain discipline. "Even the officers among our neighbors discountenance the severity which alone insures our discipline," he lamented. "To-day our army is crippled by the ideas of equality and independence which have colored the whole life of our people. When this defect is cured, and men recognize authority and obey without knowing why, we shall begin to get an army. In war, one will must act through all the others." (1)

The 2d Massachusetts was not a typical volunteer regiment in the early stages of the Civil War. Its West Point commanders intended to model the regiment after the regular army. Its junior-level officers were disproportionately the Harvard educated sons of Massachusetts' most elite families. This distinctive upper class also contributed officers to several other Massachusetts, New York, and, later in the war, African American regiments. All of these regiments, like the 2d Massachusetts, would be noted for their discipline and combat effectiveness. They achieved distinction at least in part because of their leadership. Their volunteer officers brought unique class attitudes to training camp and battlefield, and these attitudes produced particular leadership styles and particular methods of discipline. For historians to better understand discipline and leadership at the regimental and company level in the Union army, it is important to consider how the class background and ideological assumptions of officers affected these important elements.

There is no systematic study of discipline within the Union army, but scholars have still reached several conclusions about this aspect of a soldier's military experience. Historians who study the Union army and its soldiers in general echo Dwight's assessment that initially a lack of discipline reigned and that ideals of democracy inhibited military discipline. Democratic Northern soldiers resented military hierarchy, did not respond well to officers who violated their sense of social equality, and resisted coercion or the enforcement of petty regulations. Rather than organizational and institutional discipline, the Union army relied on pervasive cultural ideals of duty, self-control, and self-discipline to keep the men in line and fighting. Officers had to earn obedience rather than compel it. But over time, the army improved institutional discipline as it weeded out incompetent officers and as the men became combat veterans who recognized the need for discipline, especially after the infusion of conscripts who did not share the ideals or self-motivation of the veteran volunteers. Historian Gerald Linderman believes that the veterans themselves had lost their earlier ideals of courage and self-discipline, and that their disillusionment necessitated harsher discipline after 1863. Scholars find that discipline was still uneven in Union armies during the last year of the war, however, and that most regimental officers still accommodated in some way the democratic assumptions of their men. (2)

Not all Northerners shared the democratic assumptions that seemed to pervade the volunteer army. Despite the widespread belief in cultural values such as republicanism and equality, class cleavages cut across northern society at mid-century. …

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Rich Man's War, Rich Man's Fight: Class, Ideology, and Discipline in the Union Army
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