Friday, March 23, 2007

Port Clinton's Soldiers. . .A Case Study of Community Representation in Union Armies

The study of the American Civil War has been a lifelong passion of mine. Indeed, from a very young age I would read about the great leaders and the great battles and then reenact these battles, oftentimes alone, in the woods behind my Orwigsburg home. Over the years, I found myself increasingly interested not so much in the battles, but those who fought in them. Who were these soldiers? Why did they enlist? And what kept them in the ranks? Civil War soldier studies have flourished within the past several decades, beginning, of course, with Bell Wiley's seminal studies, and continuing with the works of James Robertson, James McPherson, and Reid Mitchell. All of these works went far in helping me better discover what the Civil War soldier went through in camp and in battle, what motivated them to enlist, and what factors sustained them through the four years of war.
When I entered the graduate program at Lehigh University in the fall of 2000, I knew that my master's thesis would somehow involve the volunteer Civil War soldier. As those who have read my blog regularly know, my thesis ultimately examined the influence bore by soldiers' socio-economic background on their war-time experiences. While I focused on the 48th Pennsylvania as a regimental case-study, my thesis also examined community representation in the ranks. To this end, I selected the community of Port Clinton, in southern Schuylkill County. Who served, and, equally as important, who did not serve in the Union armies from this small Pennsylvania town? And what does that tell us about the composition of Civil War regiments? Were they truly "mirrors" of their communities?
After six drafts, my thesis was approved in February 2003 and a master's degree earned. I consider myself fortunate to have attended Lehigh University; the history department there is top-notch, while my thesis advisor, Dr. Monica Najar, was outstanding in guiding me through the process and in helping me become a better historian.
Of course, I cannot post my entire thesis here, but I thought I would cut and paste the portion of it that deals with Port Clinton's soldiers. If interested, my thesis can be obtained through Lehigh (
Port Clinton, Pennsylvania

"In the mid-nineteenth century, Port Clinton was a small but thriving community located on the southern boundary of anthracite-laden Schuylkill County and alongside the Schuylkill River. Because of its location, Port Clinton’s leading business enterprise was the shipment of coal, which was mined farther to the north from the rich beds surrounding Pottsville and Tamaqua. This enterprise, conducted chiefly by way of railroad and canal, proved the greatest amount of employment to the community’s male citizens but by 1860, a rolling mill and the “usual number of small mechanics’ shops” provided further vocational opportunity. In that year before the outbreak of sectional hostilities, there were also three stores, three schools, two hotels, two churches, and approximately eighty “good and many small dwellings” comprising the village.[1]
Like most northern communities, Port Clinton was dramatically affected by war and the lives of many of its citizens were forever altered. By the war’s end, nearly half of all males in the small community between the ages of 13 and 44 served for a time in federal forces.
[2] The examination of these men who did and those who did not serve from Port Clinton reveals that although there were a number of discrepancies, Civil War soldiers generally reflected the social structure of their community, and argues against the belief that the war was merely and primarily a poor man’s fight.
Not surprisingly, the greatest indicator of which men did or did not serve was age, and in Port Clinton, as was true elsewhere, the young were much more likely to enlist than the old.
[3] Indeed, twenty-eight of the sixty-one enlistees from Port Clinton, or 45.9% of all who served, ranged in age from 18 to 25 while men in this age bracket constituted only 29.9% of the community’s entire male population in 1860. Adversely, although 23.4% of Port Clinton’s white male population ranged in age from 36 to 44, such men comprised only 6.6% of the town’s soldiers.
The younger age of Port Clinton’s enlistees was more than likely responsible for the disproportionate number of bachelors that served. In 1860, eighty-one males of fighting age, or 59.1%, were married, but only 49.2% of Port Clinton’s enlistees claimed such a marital status at the time of their enlistment.
[4] Although the percentage of married soldiers who served from Port Clinton was disproportionate to that of married men from the community, it was substantially higher than the estimated thirty percent of married soldiers in all Union armies.[5] This discrepancy in the percentage of married soldiers may be due to the high rate of volunteerism among the eligible male population of Port Clinton at 44.5% as compared to the estimated thirty-five percent of all northern males of fighting age who served throughout the war.[6]
While the disparities in the rates of participation in terms of age and marital status were substantial, there were only minor differences in terms of place of birth, occupation, total wealth, but these differences were not substantial enough to declare that those from one segment of society disproportionately or unequally served. There is much debate among historians concerning the enlistment of foreign-born soldiers in the Union armies. In her standard account, Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy, Ella Lonn found immigrants to be disproportionately represented in the ranks, while W.J. Rorabaugh and James McPherson found foreign-born soldiers to be underrepresented in federal forces.
[7] In Newburyport, Massachusetts, Maris Vinovskis found that although second-generation Americans were more likely to serve than the children of native-born parents, the immigrants themselves were much less likely to enlist than the native-born.[8] However, examination of the soldiers who served from Port Clinton reveals that foreign-born soldiers were proportionately represented in the ranks, and further confirms that Civil War soldiers generally reflected the social structures of their home communities. In 1860, 21.2% of Port Clinton’s male population of fighting age was born abroad, with the vast majority hailing from Ireland. Throughout the four years of America’s Civil War, fourteen of the sixty-one enlistees from Port Clinton, or 23%, were or foreign birth, a near identical percentage.
The debate about the nativity of enlistees is but one part of a larger historiographic discussion concerning the nature of war itself. Historians have long evaluated the charge that the Civil War was a rich man’s conflict but poor man’s fight, and in so doing have followed the concerns of many northerners during the 1860’s. With the passage of the Enrollment Act in 1863, which allowed a drafted man to either hire a substitute to serve in his stead or pay a $300 commutation fee, many contemporaries viewed the war as a poor man’s fight because members of society’s laboring or lower classes were unable to buy their way out of service.
[9] This belief persisted into the twentieth century and is still argued by historians such as Rorabaugh who found dramatic variations in rates of enlistment along socio-economic lines.[10] Other historians, however, increasingly challenge this notion. James McPherson, for example, argued that although the “poor man’s fight” thesis seems to be confirmed “at first glance,” analysis into the ages and occupations of Civil War soldiers reveals that the Union army was “quite representative” of the northern population. Moreover, Maris Vinovskis found that although there were some wealth and occupational differences in the rates of enlistment, soldiers from Newburyport “were not disproportionately recruited from the lower socio-economic groups.”[11] Analysis of the occupations and total wealth of Port Clinton’s enlistees reinforces the arguments posited by McPherson and Vinovskis, and indicates that the disparities in rates of service among those of different socio-economic background were not substantial enough to describe the Civil War as a poor man’s fight, demonstrating instead that men from diverse backgrounds proportionately served.
Occupation, a seemingly straightforward category, provides a central clue about the influence of wealth in enlistment. Because of Port Clinton’s location on the banks of the Schuylkill River and because of its importance in the shipping of coal, most males in Port Clinton found employment as laborers on the canal or railroad. Indeed, of the 137 males of fighting age in the town, 68, or nearly 50%, were so employed. A higher percentage of laborers, 57.4%, served in the war. Skilled labor, such as carpenter, blacksmith, and shoemaker comprised the second largest category of occupations among the male inhabitants of Port Clinton at 21.1% of the working male population. The percentage of skilled laborers who served equaled 23% of all enlistees, a difference of only 1.8%.
Since occupation was one of the greatest determiners of total wealth and because of the slightly higher percentage of unskilled laborers who served, it may be expected that those of little total wealth disproportionately enlisted, but this was not necessarily the case. In 1860, 17.5% of the male population either headed or resided with family members in homes valued between $0 and $100, while 35.8% constituted the $101 to $500 category. Twenty-seven males of fighting age, or 19.7%, headed or resided with family in homes with an estate valuation between $501 and $1,000, while another 21.2% fell into the $1,001 to $5,000 bracket. The remaining 5.8% of the male population of fighting age either headed or resided with relations in homes with a total valuation placed above $5,000.
As a factor, total wealth exerted little influence over rates of volunteerism and, although there were a few discrepancies, males from no one category disproportionately served. Of the sixty-one soldiers who served from Port Clinton, thirteen, or 21.3% came from estates valued between $0 and $100, just 3.8% higher than the percentage of all males of fighting age who fell within this monetary category. In Newburyport, Massachusetts, Vinovskis found that 29% of all enlistees fell into this monetary category. A slight difference also existed between the percentages of soldiers who either headed or resided with family having estates valued between $101 and $500 and Port Clinton’s male population of fighting age as a whole, 32.8% compared with 35.8% respectively. And although 13.1% of Port Clinton’s enlistees came from estates valuated between $501 and $1,000, or 6.6% below the percentage of the community’s population of eligible males as a whole, seventeen of the twenty-nine males of fighting age who either headed households or resided with family in estates valued between $1,001 and $5,000 volunteered, or 27.9% of all who served. This is 6.7% greater than those occupying estates so valued in the community as a whole. This percentage of the wealthiest soldiers in the ranks nearly mirrors that found by Vinovskis at twenty-four percent. These statistics thus reveal that soldiers came from all socio-economic backgrounds. And although there were some differences in the rates of enrollment, they were not substantial enough to categorize the war simply as a poor man’s fight.
As the examination of soldiers from Port Clinton suggests, there was widespread participation in the war effort among the eligible male population of fighting age. Although disproportionately young, soldiers generally reflected the social composition of their home communities with the foreign born, skilled and unskilled laborers, and wealthy and poor proportionately represented in the ranks. However, while social background bore very little influence in determining patterns of enlistment, it did play a significant role in how soldiers fought and experienced the war as revealed through the examination of the soldiers of Pennsylvania’s 48th Regiment of volunteer infantry."

[1] W.W. Munsell, History of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, (New York: George McNamara, 1881): 366.
[2] Sixty-one of the 137 white males of fighting age from Port Clinton served for a time throughout the war years, or 44.5%. This percentage, although higher than the estimated 35% of all northern males aged 13 and 44 that served, is lower than the 57% of all Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, males of fighting age that served.
[3] In Newburyport, Massachusetts, Vinovskis found that approximately one-half of all male residents aged 16 to 17 and nearly four-tenths of those aged between 18 and 24 served for a time in Union forces, while only one-twentieth of those aged in their forties enlisted. Vinovskis, 46. In Concord, Massachusetts, Rorabaugh found a similar pattern of enlistment, with 57% of Concord’s enlistees aged between 16 and 29 and only 8% between 40 and 49. Rorabaugh, 696. See Appendix 1, Table 1, for a breakdown in age between the soldiers from Port Clinton and the male population of fighting age as a whole. The average age of soldiers from Port Clinton was 24.75 years, which was just one year younger than the average age among all Union soldiers at 25.8. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, viii.
[4] See Appendix 1, Table 4, for a breakdown in the marital status between Port Clinton’s enlistees and the male population of fighting age as a whole.
[5] Amy Holmes, “Widows and the Civil War Pension System,” in Maris Vinovskis, ed., Toward a Social History of the Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990): 174.
[6] Vinovskis, 44.
[7] Ella Lonn, Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy, (New York: The Greenwood Press, 1951), 441-444; Rorabaugh, 697; and McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, 356-357.
[8] Vinovskis, 46.
[9] Vinovskis, 47.
[10] Rorabaugh, 701.
[11] McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, 355; Vinovskis, 49-50.
[12] See Appendix 1, Table 6, for a breakdown in occupational categories.

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