US Civil War Question

It’s 1863, I just turned 18 years old, and live on a farm in upstate NY. My father isn’t rich or well connected, but we are not destitute poor either. I have a 9th grade education, and I am physically able to march long distances and shoot a rifle, like every other 18 year old boy in my county. I can’t play the bugle, and have no other specific skills to speak of. And I am not an only son.

I am going to enlist in the Union Army, but I don’t particularly want to be an infantry foot soldier, since I know their life expectancy is short. What are the chances of me becoming a cook or other support person? Perhaps I could tend to the horses and other livestock.

In other words, without any particular skills how likely is it that I will get a position in the army that doesn’t involve loading, aiming and shooting a rifle at a long line of rebel soldiers? Do I realistically have any choice in the matter as an enlisted person?

Let’s put it this way. You’re not likely to leave any direct descendants, unless you get lucky with a prostitute who gets unlucky.

According to the memory of our own ralph124c, and nobody argued with him about it, not good, something like ten trigger pullers to one guy in support, especially because I assume you were white in 1863. OTOH, they all had a very good chance of dying from disease instead of getting shot.

Most day-to-day tasks would have been carried out by the troops themselves, at least when they were in the field. Soldiers were issued rations, and then had to scrounge firewood and cook their food themselves. Sometimes they had to forage for themselves. They repaired their own clothes and boots. (Although if there were cobblers or tailors in the ranks, they could trade work for spare rations or other goods.) There wouldn’t have been a specific individual assigned to feed the horses - that task would have rotated among the men.

Relatively few troops would have been dedicated to specific tasks that would have freed them from carrying a rifle and going into battle when the enemy was engaged. There would have been some sutlers and other men attached to the quartermasters who would not usually have seen action, but they were the exception.

The Army doesn’t put you where you want to go, nor does it put you where you fit best. it puts you where it needs a body, and the position of “cannon fodder” always needed replenishing. Sorry.

This could actualyl be a handy way of doing what he wanted, though. Sutlers by nature weren’t in Union territory - and they weren’t getting drafted! You had to be careful to avoid thefts, and preferably build an honest reputation. But there was nothing much preventing you from getting goods through to the troops in the South and buying any cottopn they acquired (through fair means and foul).

You might be better off going to New York and speculating in gold.

^Edited to pick up the detail I’m asking about.

Would that have been the usual level of education for someone born in the US or who had inmigrated as a child, at that time? Or would it have been lower, perhaps depending on location (that is, would the education level of someone in Brooklyn be the same as that of someone in Springfield, Kansas*)?

  • I checked, there doesn’t seem to be a Springfield in Kansas. If there is, Google maps has misplaced it.

With a 9th grade education, they might make him a general. That’s one way not to get shot at.

Tossing out huge shovelfuls of generalities, that’s not unreasonable for the day.

The U.S. was still mostly a small town/farming society even in the North. The northeast had many industrial cities but the West, as they called what we now call the Middle West, was still organizing itself as a society. You can consider almost anything west of the Hudson River as Middle West in those terms so Upstate NY counts. Education was hugely important and just about the first thing the villagers/farmers did when they had the number of children to support one was to set up a school.

These weren’t much by modern standards. They became known as “one-room” schoolhouses because they were literally that, with every student of every age sitting together. Teachers were often only a couple years older than the oldest student. In fact, they might graduate one year and take over the teaching the next. Teaching was mostly by rote out of primers.

Students stayed as long as their parents could afford not to have them working. That varied by economic condition, number of children in the family, number of boys vs. girls, and anything else you can think of. Laws required children to stay in school until a certain age, but these existed more on paper than in reality.

Ninth grade was considered to be the start of high school and high school were tiny places by modern standards, with classes of a dozen people the norm even in good-sized towns. Stopping after eighth grade might be a bit more usual for that reason.

The large cities in the east had more formal school systems, but the patterns weren’t all that much different. Immigrant kids stayed in school as long as their parents could afford not to have them working. High schools were small and for the middle classes. Rochester, NY was a major city of 162,000 in the 1900 census before a second high school opened. High school graduation rates nationwide didn’t pass 50% until after WWII, IIRC, although large cities had exceeded that earlier.

In short, having a basic education and some of the three R’s (readin’, riting’ and 'rithmatic) would be normal for a farmboy.

Ah, maybe that’s where my confusion stems from, in Spain those were considered acquired by 4th grade, which was where compulsory education ended up to thereabouts of the 1960s (my mother was a one-room schoolteacher in the '50s and '60s) - I’m not sure when did we get the first law that set compulsory-education limits, but I do know that at that time there were many parts of the country which did not have schools. My own great-grandfather was from a place with no school, and his advancement in the Guardia Civil (a police corps with a military structure) was directly linked to, among other things, literacy. To become a lance corporal he had to be able to read (the exams for that promotion were spoken), to be a corporal he had to be able to write, to be a sergeant he needed to know “the four rules” (±*; division with no decimals).

Thanks everyone, that’s about what I thought. They needed lots of foot soldiers, so that’s what would probably have happened to me (sigh).

I was watching “Gods and Generals” last night, and I don’t know how accurate it is supposed to be, but I couldn’t help but notice that in any given battle scene there were a number of people running around without obvious weapons to defend themselves. Perhaps they had pistols or swords on their sides, but I didn’t always see one. I saw buglers, flag bearers, medical corps and even a small musical band on the field of battle.

It seems that all of these folks would have been sitting ducks once the shooting started.

I suppose you needed the bugler to signal the troops whether to advance or retreat, and the flag bearers showed you where the rest of your unit was, but why put a musical band in the middle of a battle? To encourage the troops? Wouldn’t these folks have been more valuable as soldiers with rifles?

Join the railroad. Railroad and other industrial workers generally could avoid service.

Being a general didn’t offer as much protection as you might think. I don’t have the exact numbers, but there were a lot of them shot during that war. Most of the brigade generals led from the front with all that entails, but a lot of higher ranked ones also bought it.

A very short list from memory.

John Reynolds
Stonewall Jackson
John Sedgwick
Lewis Armistead
Dan Sickles
Albert Sydney Johnston

Being anything in the Civil War was dangerous.

OK - not to your question but - as Catton and Foote both pointed out now and again most of the kids/men who went into teamster or cavalry were from cities. Rural kids knew how much time and effort went into caring for horses and just weren’t interested.

In most states and at most times it was pure luck. The federal subscription to the states were for infantry so enlist until that number was filled and you were infantry. You almost had to be part of a specialty before the war or have someone in it “pull you” to get in. YMMV - Illinois I believe gave more choice to enlistees. But in general terms it was a stacked deck.

To my knowledge, which includes talking about it with some serious reenactors who appeared as extras, there was considerable interest in accuracy on that project.* But it’s also true that flags and music were a big part of the cinematic composition. All the sorts of people you saw really were present, but it’s possible that their per capita screen time was suggestive of greater numbers, relative to ordinary infantrymen, than was the case.

  • One of them griped that the shade of blue in the “Bonnie Blue Flag” scene was too light.

Maybe not. Why waste bullets on those guys? Of course there was probably a lot of metal whizzing around but they’d be no more likely to die randomly than anyone else.

According to a book on the Civil War I once read, Sedgwick refused to take cover at the battle of Spotsylvania, despite his staff trying desperately to persuade him to do so. His famous last words were reported as “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

Sickles lost a leg at Gettysburg. He collected as a medical specimen, donated it to a museum, and was known to “visit” it from time to time. That would be one of your leaders as an 18-year old…or a 17 year old enlisting underage…

My great grandfather was graduating from Alfred University in New York in 1861, with a degree in law. His entire class decided to enlist in the Union Army. All went in as privates. G-grandfather was captured at 2nd Bull Run; the Rebs were going to kill him, but a Confederate soldier who knew him from before the war intervened and vouched for his character. Otherwise, this post wouldn’t exist.

…also, for what it’s worth in addressing the question, here is the actual experience of my great-grandfather enlisting in the Union Navy underage and serving in battle. This comes from his civil war pension document, sworn before an attorney in 1909.

He and a friend, ages 17, living in Boston and going to “high school” (as he stated it in 1909), dared one another to enlist. Young James Fink was bold enough to try. Getting wind of this, his long-suffering father “posted” him at all the recruiting stations in the area, so he ran away to New York City, “having gotten the idea to enlist into my head.”

In New York (in late august of 1864, I believe), soon out of money, hungry and without shelter, he saw a tent in “a park” and took shelter in it for the night, though it was full of “a lot of rough looking characters.” In the morning, an Army recruiter threw open the flap and loudly asked, “Good morning, boys, sleep well?” offering to buy breakfast for any man who would enlist. James Fink took him up on it.

Over breakfast, Fink told the recruiter he wanted to join, but was underage and posted in Boston by his father–whom he expected was now on his trail (correctly). The recruiter took young Fink over to New Jersey and enlisted him in the Navy, with the lie that he was German-born (his parents were German born, he was born in Boston). The reasoning was that Nativist feeling of the time and manpower needs made it more likely he would not be questioned too closely, he says in his pension document.

He served on two ships, the first on blockade duty off Southern coasts before he was transferred to a “modern” screw frigate that was the flagship of an amphibious force that made two assaults on Fort Fisher, North Carolina, covering the last open port of the Confederacy at Wilmington. The first battle was a farce that went nowhere. With new leadership the second battle was a hot and bloody affair. Young Fink was a “powder monkey,” carrying up from the magazine deep in the ship measured powder charges sewn up in burlap, dropping them off at guns engaged in action. At one point, he held two bags in front of his face as cover from “a coming shell,” and hearing laughter, looked up to see the ship’s captain laughing at him, at which, realizing the absurdity of it, he laughed, too, he says in this sworn document. He mentions a man named “Cushing” or “Cushman,” (getting the name slightly wrong, as I recall) a historical figure during the battle who made a deep impression on him for his fiery leadership.

His ship lost it’s mizzen mast, and they were “pretty badly shot up.” They put into a Navy base at Boston, and father showed up with discharge papers he said came from the secretary of the navy (Fink admits he never saw those papers, but he was discharged from the Navy, with paperwork done aboard ship, and taken home by his father). His discharge papers (which I have seen) say, “ship’s boy, discharged, underage.”

Maybe this helps answer your question a bit.

Could you try really hard to suck up to a general in hopes of being made a sort of aide de camp?