Father Abraham’s Call for Troops

When the American Civil War erupted in 1861, writes Kat Smutz, it had been less than one hundred years since the Colonies had wrenched themselves free of the British and declared themselves an independent government.  The infant nation had proved it could stand up for itself, and continued to due so.  As the nation spread westward, one conflict after another arose, with the United States always the victor.  When long standing controversy over the institution of slavery had boiled over into conflict, both sides were confident of their ability to defend their ideals against all challengers.

Off to see the elephant

Many young men put down their farm tools, picked up their hunting rifles and marched off to ‘see the elephant,’ a popular term of the era for battle.  Unfortunately, war was not the great and glorious adventure they envisioned, and far too many never returned home.   In January of 1861, the Union army stood at 15,000 men.  By the end of March, it had swelled to over a half million.  Confederate troops stood at just over a quarter million men.  On April 15, 1861, the day after war officially began with the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, President Abraham Lincoln (pictured) called for 75,000 volunteers for a three month term of service.

Three months of fighting came and went, and the term of service was extended, to six months, then a year.  In fact, each passing day brought news of more losses and more evidence that the war wasn’t going to end anytime soon.  Winfield Scott was no longer in charge of the Union Army.  Robert E. Lee, the man Winfield had hoped would replace him, was leading the Confederate troops to one victory after another.  And Scott’s replacement, George B McClellan was proving to be less than an acceptable substitute for either Scott or Lee. President Abraham Lincoln knew that unless he found the right general to lead the armies of the Union, the Confederate States of America might very well succeed in becoming a sovereign nation.  Which would rip the fledgling United States in half.

The First Draft

Desperate for a Union victory that would hold the nation together, Lincoln called for the first draft in the history of the United States.  In August of 1862 he asked the Union to provide 300,000 of their sons to fight.

The call for more troops was less than well received in some parts of the North.  Only 87,000 men answered the call.  When the draft became official in 1863, riots erupted, one of the largest being in New York.  Working class citizens opposed being forced to fight a war they didn’t see as theirs.  Thousands, including an estimated 100 African Americans, were killed before the violence could be stopped.

Other places saw it as their patriotic duty to answer Lincoln’s call, to support the man who had become the poster child of his day for the abolition of the vile institution of slavery and to maintain the Union.


In Maine, a state carved out of the Massachusetts Territory in order to provide a free state to match Missouri’s admission to the United States as a slave state, Lincoln asked for four regiments.  The response to the call for volunteers was so great that Maine raised their four regiments—the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th—and had such an overflow of volunteers that one more was added—the 20th Maine Infantry.  The group was mustered on August 29, 1862.  This undisciplined, untrained group found itself at the center of the fighting at Gettysburg where their actions earned them the status of legendary. (Pictured are veterans of the 20th Maine Infantry, gathered in Gettysburg in 1889. Click to enlarge)

From August 24 to 26, 2012, the Maine Living History Association will host a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the mustering of 20th Maine Infantry.  Re-enactors—those crazy people who dress in layers of wool and cotton period clothing in the middle of summer and fight mock battles at historic sites—from all over New England will gather at a small place called Fairfield, Maine at the Good Will Hinkley School.  For three days, there will be demonstrations of what life was like in New England during the American Civil War.  Civil War veterans will be recognized, along with the descendants of these same veterans.

You can always recognize a serious history buff/ re-enactor.  They’ve learned that in war, no one wins, and the American Civil War was no exception.  While soldiers may feign good natured animosity while in uniform, they all know this, and acknowledge that both sides were exercising their hard-won freedom to fight for what they believed in.  Soldiers from both sides will be recognized and descendants of Maine’s civil war troops are particularly encouraged to attend.  Recognition will also be paid to other legendary Maine figures of the American Civil War such as Isabella Fogg, Sarah Sampson, and Dorothea Dix, a civil war legend in her own right.

And I will be there.  As the author of two books on the war, American Civil War: History in an Hour and American Slavery: History in an Hour, I’ve been invited to attend as a history author.  As a former re-enactor, I have also been asked to bring a costume and spend the day dressed in period clothing and to participate.  And as a history addict, I plan to spend a therapeutic weekend, happily sharing my addiction to history with fellow addicts.

For more information about this event, please visit the Civil War Maine website. And if you happen to be in the vicinity, and you have never been to a reenactment, you don’t want to miss this.  If you can’t make it, there are always my books on the war and on slavery, both available here at History In An Hour.

Kat Smutz

American Civil War: History in an Hour and American Slavery: History in an Hour, both published by Harper Press, are available in various digital formats and American Civil War is also available as audio.

See also Kat’s articles on the origins of Memorial Day, the Cost of Freedom, and the 4th July during the Civil War