US Civil War to First World War: Learning the Lessons – Part 1

What follows is a critique of a couple of the lectures at the recent Day School at the Centre for War Studies that examined the links between the American Civil War and the First  World War.

‘Two Worcesters, Two Wars: Contrasting Approaches to Recruitment & Mobilisation in the American Civil War and the Great War’ (Nick Beeching, University of Birmingham)

Nick Beeching’s thorough and engaging talk on recruitment in the American Civil War and First World War served to highlight the differences between the make up and maintenance of recruitment in the two conflicts. Although both nations shared a similar martial tradition, there was a distinct economic difference between Britain and America. At the time of the American Civil War, America was an industrialising nation, whilst at the time of the First World War, Britain was an advanced industrialised nation. This had consequences on the type of recruit found in each conflict; for example, in the Union Army, 80% of recruits were from a rural background, whilst 70% of Worcester recruits in the First World War were from an urban industrial background.

Further interesting contrasts were highlighted between the two conflicts, particularly around the distinction between regular and volunteer forces. In something akin to a bureaucrat’s nightmare, the regular army and volunteer forces were recruited and organised separately in the American Civil War. This was further compounded by the fact that, rather than reinforcing existing units, new units were created. This was all in stark contrast to the British army’s linking of territorial units to regular battalions and the systematic reinforcement of units. In another point of contrast, there was a wholesale use of ‘bounties’ to encourage troops to enlist during the American Civil War. Bounties were offered by local, state and federal administrations, amounting to as much as c.$700 per individual – a substantial amount given that the annual wage at the time was approximately $240 ($120 per annum for African Americans). To highlight the cost of this to a state, Maine paid out $1.5 million in bounties in 1861 alone. Inevitably, this led to a proliferation of ‘bounty jumpers’ – men who enlisted in either Union or Confederate armies, collected their bounty, left and then subsequently re-enlisted to claim another bounty. On a slightly less nefarious note, the draft of 1863 allowed individuals to pay a bounty to some else to fight in their place rather than be drafted. For all intents and purposes, the bounty was supposed to act as an insurance policy in the event of injury or death rather than something to be squandered.

Unfortunately, owing to time constraints, Nick’s talk was cut short, which led to limited consideration of recruitment and mobilisation in the First World War. However, his parting note was particularly trenchant, underscoring the relationship between industrialisation and recruitment through his recourse to ‘custom made’ and ‘mass produced’ items. Recruitment and mobilisation in the American Civil War never progressed beyond ‘custom made’, whilst in the First World War, we see the realisation of mass produced recruitment. Conscripts were the raw materials. The battlefield was where those raw materials were consumed.

‘Out of Action’: Camp Life in the Armies of the American Civil War and the British Army in the Great War (Dr Bob Bushaway, University of Birmingham)

Bob Bushaway’s talk on camp life was largely geared towards the American Civil War experience. The talk was usefully illustrated with photographs, illustrations and paintings from the period that revealed the types of activities men engaged in when not in combat.

Camp life in the American Civil War was dangerous with a high proportion of casualties sustained through disease: in the Union army, 3 in 5 casualties were through disease, whilst the Confederate army experienced 2 in 5. Although camp conditions were bad, there was not a laissez-faire attitude across the board. Generals such as George McClellan actively insisted on proper provision for the comfort and well-being of their men. McClellan’s attitude was informed by his experiences as an official observer during the Crimean War. Witnessing how poorly British soldiers were treated, McClellan took the lessons of the Crimea home and codified them in a highly critical report. In McClellan’s case, we see the importance of official observers as knowledge conduits and reservoirs. By observing knowledge at the source, McClellan was able to transfer aspects of this knowledge in the form of lessons learned; Ian Hamilton’s experience as an official observer during the Russo-Japanese War can be viewed in a similar way.

For me, Bob’s talk raise two important points about camp life: first, the importance of adaptation and second, the social dimension. Of course, the two points are not mutually exclusive. Adaptation would go part way in mitigating some of the less savoury aspects of camp life, such as lice and fleas. As the war progressed, head and facial hair became shorter to combat these unwelcome visitors. The process of grooming was often a social activity whether that was visiting the camp barber or sitting and delousing clothes. Activities that ‘passed the time’ were highly social, for example, attending religious services, ‘chatting’ with friends, sharing a hamper from home or drill practice. These activities encouraged group cohesion and, in the case of the latter, instilled discipline.

Some of the more unsavoury aspects of camp life were touched upon: sutlers (civilian merchants) and soiled doves (prostitutes). These two groups satisfied a soldier’s baser needs. Although there was a proliferation of sutlers, the the presence of prostitutes was less prevalent. This was, in part, due to the Second Great Awakening – a religious movement that also incorporated women’s rights reform, revisiting the role of women in society. Of course, this had its own regional dimension with a well-documented perception that Southern women were less flagrant than their northern sisters.

On a final note, it was particularly clear that the types of activities that Bob illustrated throughout his talk were not just confined to the experience of the soldier of the American Civil War soldier. Reading, writing letters home, taking part in amateur dramatics, playing music and attending religious services can be evidenced in other more recent conflicts. Bob’s talk served to highlight the commonality of experience ‘behind the lines’, particularly between the American Civil War and the First World War.

Aimee Fox-Godden, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

One response to “US Civil War to First World War: Learning the Lessons – Part 1

  1. Thanks for the helpful & constructive feedback. If you would like a copy of the slides (including the ones I wasn’t able to show for reasons of time) please let me know as I am firmly committed to the concept of ‘intellectual commons’

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