The characters in my book join the Fifteen NJ Regiment for a variety of reasons, just like the real men did during the Civil War.
Joseph G. Bilby notes that while it is a common belief – one that even was appropriated by the soldiers themselves years after the war – that patriotism drove their enlistment. But this is not the case. Bilby notes “there is little indication that most of them, or for that matter, their Southern opponents, gave it any deep thought.”
So why did they join up? Excitement, for one, especially if the young man’s life was predictable and dull. Other reasons mentioned by Bilby are travel, the desire for change, and the pressures of unemployment and other economic problems. As for those who were qualified to become officers, Bilby observes that they hoped to use their experience in the Army to find employment in politics or business – that is, if they survived. Another reason also emerges: the war was a huge event and many men realized it was the biggest thing that would ever happen in their lifetime. The desire to be part of it must have driven them. (Bilby, 1993, 6)
So, what about the characters in the Saint Maggie series? What drove them?
In the first pages of SAINT MAGGIE there is a discussion between Eli and Nate about the coming war. The first one to speak of it is Nate Johnson, Emily’s husband, who is black. As of 1860 – before hostilities broke out – the armed services were not integrated nor was there any regiment for black men (that would come later in the war), hence Nate’s comment, “If they’ll take me.”
Nate dusted his hands. “Well, if there’s a war, I’m joining up. If they’ll let me.”
“Think that’s a good idea?” Eli asked. “What if you end up getting taken prisoner? You could lose your freedom.”
“I’d risk it.” His black eyes were fierce. “Those folk down South are my brothers and sisters. My heart won’t let me stay out of this fight.”… “Would you go?” Nate asked Eli. “To war?”
Eli glanced down at his pot belly. “Look at me, Nate. Do I look like a soldier? Anyway, the Quaker in me won’t permit it. So, no – no fighting for me. If I do anything, I’ll cover the war as a correspondent. Folks need to know what’s going on.”
Nate’s gaze did not waver. “War correspondents get killed, too.”
“Yes, I know,” Eli murmured.
Nate wants to fight for those who are enslaved. Emily had been brought to New Jersey by her mother, who somehow managed to self-emancipate and made it north after locating people from the Underground Railroad. Nate is motivated by oppression.
Eli, on the other hand, has Quaker roots and a distaste for war and violence. But he understands the importance and complexity of the coming war – and so wants to be present as a newspaper correspondent, something which drives a wedge between himself and Maggie later.
As for the younger men, lawyer Edgar Lape and the undertaker’s apprentice, Patrick McCoy. We see them enthusing, as only those with no experience of war, on Election Night of 1860.
At that moment, a loud crack echoed outside. It was followed by a long volley of rifle fire. Maggie flinched.
Eli squatted beside her. “It’s all right, sweetheart. It’s just some of the neighbors.” With a wink, he added, “Neighbors full of whiskey and armed with loaded weapons.”
“Somehow, my love, drunken men with guns is not a comforting idea.”
The men all guffawed.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Nate joked. “They’re just getting a little practice in.”
“They’re going to need it,” Edgar declared. “Pick up your rifles, men! Answer the call of your country!”
Patrick snapped to attention and saluted. “I’m ready to give my life for dear old New Jersey!”
“Fools,” Emily grunted. “You’re a bunch of doggone fools.”
The young men are motivated by a sort of giddy patriotism, meaning they don’t understand fully what enlistment and giving one’s life for country might mean. By 1862, however, Patrick has a sober attitude and explains himself in THE ENLISTMENT.
“Look, Frankie, Edgar and I have been talking this over and –”
“Oh, I know you’ve been talking it over,” she interrupted. “I’ve heard it at the supper table every night for months now.” Frankie’s eyes pooled with tears, making them all the brighter. “I thought you were back to stay. You said you’d had enough.”
“I wasn’t in the army then. You know that.” Patrick was a fair-looking young man of nineteen, with a shock of hair the color of mahogany and eyes as blue as a deep sea. His long fingers laced together and then unlaced again. “But I have seen the worst that can happen to soldiers. I saw the bodies. I saw what a minié ball* and shrapnel can do to a man.” He heaved a sigh. “Frankie, I was so disgusted with Mr. Meany. Embalming doesn’t cost nearly as much as what he charged. He was cheating soldiers’ families, taking advantage of their grief and their need to see loved ones one last time. He wasn’t helping anyone but himself.” He glanced at her. “That’s why I decided to leave. I went with him because I thought I could do something, to make a difference, to help in some way. But once I saw what was going on I realized Mr. Meany was making money from people’s pain.”
Frankie brushed unruly strands of red hair back from her face. Her hair always managed to escape both braid and bun, which annoyed her to no end but for which she could find no cure. “Look, Pat, if you join the army, you’ll have a gun in your hands. You’ll be shooting at the Johnnies* and they’ll be shooting at you. What difference could you possibly make besides losing your life and making us all sad, too?”
“I don’t know. I do know this, though, we all thought this thing was going to be over in a few months, but now there’s no end in sight. Frankie, I can’t sit back anymore and let someone else do the fighting.”
Patrick is going back, even though he knows the awful results of battle, because he feels he has a duty. I suspect Edgar joined for much the same reason, since the two young men had had some conversations about this.
In short, just as men were in real life, my Civil War-era men have a variety of reasons for getting involved in the war.
In my next blog, I’ll look at why women joined the Army.
Bilby, J. G. (1993). Three Rousing Cheers: A Hihstory of the Fifteenth New Jersey from Flemington to Appomattox. Hightstown, NJ: Longstreet House.