The Highway To Hell: Why Citizens Joined The War

1820 words - 8 pages

The American soldier has come to be known as a trained combat specialist capable of defending the convictions of their country on the homefront and abroad. This portrayal now comforts the citizens of America and allows them to stay a comfortable distance from the theatre of war as the military has become all-volunteer, but these fine soldiers were once citizens themselves. What made them join the war effort? Throughout the development of the United States to the country it is today, these men and eventually women were motivated to go to war to either put food on the table or to defend the honor of their fellow countrymen and families, their common ideological practices, and individual maturity while changing public perceptions of conscription led to an ebb and flow of available bodies.
In the colonial period, the Thirteen Colonies relied on their militia system for defense. These local militia were comprised of men who often drilled after Sunday services. Because these men were local, they fought purely for the immediate region to which they espoused. As Native American threats eased, so did militia training, and the Continental Army was forced to take in the lowest of individuals. These often penniless, obscure groups of men joined the ranks for the money, often provided by higher class individuals listed in the militias who wanted to hire someone to take their positions for three years of service. Subsequently, most of the men who joined the Continental forces were unskilled, landless, and about the age of twenty. They had come of age and had no land or money to buy land, though most listed they had a previous occupation of working the land. This was mainly due to the fact that most immigrants had come over as indentured servants and as their times of service came to an end, they found themselves out of work and fell into the ranks. These immigrants, especially Irish men, were often sought after to join the paid labor force that was the Continental Army because there were so many of them to saturate it with. Conscription in this time was used sparingly, only when volunteer or paid substitutes were not enough to satisfy the need for men.
Men at the beginning of the Civil War looked to defend their honor. Higher class individuals often wrote that their reason for joining the fight was to defend their family honor while the lower class explained their fellow immigrants’ honor to be the overlaying cause. Men who joined the war were easily categorized into either gambling drunkards or responsible husbands or sons. This was starkly contrasted by their actions, as enlisted men tried to take the inactive jobs such as “wagon-train guards, teamsters, hospital attendants” in order to join the cause and be able to get back to their families without dying for this cause. This can be seen in the accounts of officers who complained that only a fraction of their brigades actually showed up for their duties. Taking these behind-the-action jobs on one end of...

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