Wanted: More recruits
Attrition, attrition, attrition. The problem constantly faced both Union and Confederate armies. Whether linked to battle casualties, disease, desertion or detached duty, the need for new recruits always existed to maintain the fighting armies at sufficient strength.
Early in the war volunteers rushed to enlist, many citing patriotism or fulfilling a sense of adventure. But reading casualty reports in the papers, observing funerals of friends, neighbors or family slowed the volunteer fervor.
Seeing the aspect of filling the old regiments and raising new units becoming increasingly difficult, both North and South resorted to conscription acts. The South acted first in early 1862, the passed legislation riddled with loopholes to avoid draft eligibility. The North waited until the following spring having initially implemented the use of the Militia Act of 1793 to create a number of regiments with nine-month enlistments. The Northern draft worked, but created problems in perceived class warfare. For $300 men could buy themselves out of the draft and people started to declare this conflict was changing into a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”
To help assist in raising troops, states commenced the offering of their own monetary bounties to spark enlistments. The ploy somewhat worked, but the initial sums failed to provide adequate incentive.
That changed in the fall of 1863. Both the federal and state governments loosened their purse strings. If a new man enlisted the U.S. government promised a bounty of $302. Should the recruit be a veteran, the government increased the bounty to $402. This proved more of an incentive since a family could comfortably live on $400 per year in the 1860s.
Then the states joined in. Vermont provided a bounty of $125. The simple act of enlisting transformed into a profitable venture, if it was worth risking your life.
Surprisingly, volunteers responded to the call slowly. To counter this, the War Department issued specific enlistment quotas to be filled by each town. If the towns failed to meet the numbers by January 5, 1864, the North would draft not only up to the original figure, but a supplemental number of men.
This action prompted towns to take drastic action to avoid the embarrassment of resorting to a draft and losing more townspeople to the war. There did exist a type of “draft” dishonor. The Rutland Herald implored the people of the town that no one “desires the stigma to rest upon Rutland of it’s being the only town in the State in which it was necessary to resort to a draft to answer the last call of the government for men.”
Rutland and most other Vermont towns followed a simple measure to avoid being labeled a “nonsupporter” of the cause. They simply offered their own bounties.
Men hotly debated the issue, attempting to calculate what figure to offer and more importantly, how to pay for it.
In Rutland, citizens met in December to discuss the issue. When the meeting concluded, Rutland pledged a $500 bounty to each volunteer. They agreed to a town tax to pay for the sum. Requested to raise 125 volunteers, this sum totaled $52,500; the voters actually permitted the raising of $65,000. At a time when quick-thinking men collected their dollars and then immediately deserted, Rutland added a caveat to their bounty for nonresidents; $300 at signup, the remaining balance $200 six months later. As one paper printed, “The object of this modification ... was to guard against desertions and to secure bona fide soldiers.” No “bounty jumpers” here.
Residency was not a problem. Men did not have to dwell in the towns where they enlisted. They could select the community with the highest bounty and be credited to that town’s quota.
Buoyed by the addition of $500, volunteers flocked to the recruiting office. By Dec. 28, Rutland had filled its quota, not needing to draft up to the 125, plus 90 more. The Rutland Herald proudly wrote, “No draft here.”
This group of volunteers featured some different faces among the recruits, those of African Americans. Since the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans had been eligible for service and several had been drafted back in July. But now they placed their names on enlistment papers and found themselves able to collect bounties.
This change of policy came about due to the order issued by Adjutant General Peter Washburn, whose town of Woodstock also had an African American population. He issued the following declaration: “Colored men who enlist will be credited toward the deficiency under the draft and will be assigned to serve in colored regiments.”
Every African American who enlisted from Rutland subsequently served in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, whose history was made noteworthy in the movie “Glory.”
The following who hailed from Rutland joined the 54th: William Scott and his son George, brothers John and Cyrus Williams, James Quow, George Hart, Nathan Hayes, Francis Anthony, John Weeks and John Freeman. Seven additional men came in to enlist from out of town. Rutland sent the largest contingent into the 54th Massachusetts and they proudly served in the regiment until the end of the war.
Donald Wickman is an author and historian who lives in Rutland.