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Lorien Foote

Soldiers enlisted in the Union Army from every state in the Union and the Confederacy. The initial volunteers were motivated to preserve the accomplishments of the American Revolution and save the world’s hope that democratic government could survive. They were influenced by their culture’s ideals of manhood and republican ideals of the citizen soldier. They served in regiments that retained close ties with their sending communities throughout the war. Recruits faced a difficult adjustment period when their units were mustered into the US Army. The test of battle taught soldiers to value some drills and discipline, but many soldiers insisted that officers respect their independence and equality. Soldiers successfully resisted many aspects of formal military discipline. Army life exposed conflicts between soldiers who sought to create moral regiments and soldiers who displayed manliness through fighting and drinking. Establishing honor before peers was an important component of soldier life. Effective soldiering involved enduring the boredom and disease of camp, the rigors of marching, and the terror of battle. To survive, soldiers formed close bonds with their comrades, mastered self-care techniques to stay healthy, applied skills learned from their civilian occupations on the battlefield, and remained connected to their families and communities. Conscription changed the character of the Union Army. Officers tightened discipline over the influx of lower-class “roughs.” Union soldiers generally demonized their enemies as inferior barbarians. Because of their interaction with slaves in the South, Union soldiers quickly shifted their support to emancipation. Although Christianity and ideals of civilized behavior placed some restraints on Union soldiers when they encountered southerners, they supported and implemented hard war measures against the South’s population and resources, and treated guerrillas and their supporters with particular brutality. In the election of 1864, Union soldiers voted to fight until the Confederacy was defeated.


In May 1861, three enslaved men who were determined not to be separated from their families ran to Fort Monroe, Virginia. Their flight led to the phenomenon of Civil War contraband camps. Contraband camps were refugee camps to which between four hundred thousand and five hundred thousand enslaved men, women, and children in the Union-occupied portions of the Confederacy fled to escape their owners by getting themselves to the Union Army. Army personnel had not envisioned overseeing a massive network of refugee camps. Responding to the interplay between the actions of the former slaves who fled to the camps, Republican legislation and policy, military orders, and real conditions on the ground, the army improvised. In the contraband camps, former slaves endured overcrowding, food and clothing shortages, poor sanitary conditions, and constant danger. They also gained the protection of the Union Army and access to the power of the US government as new, though unsteady, allies in the pursuit of their key interests, including education, employment, and the reconstitution of family, kin, and social life. The camps brought together actors who had previously had little to no contact with each other, exposed everyone involved to massive structural forces that were much larger than the human ability to control them, and led to unexpected outcomes. They produced a refugee crisis on US soil, affected the course and outcome of the Civil War, influenced the progress of wartime emancipation, and altered the relationship between the individual and the national government. Contraband camps were simultaneously humanitarian crises and incubators for a new relationship between African Americans and the US government.