On “The Project” page I’ve explained what I hope to accomplish by studying the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. I wrote that I wanted to use the ordeal of this regiment “to illustrate the varied experiences of soldiers during the Civil War.” In other words, my work would “capture the many dimensions of Northern soldiers’ military experiences from the perspective of one regiment.”
These aspirations raise an important question. How can the experiences of one regiment, especially a storied unit like the 5th New Hampshire, exemplify the Civil War experience? Undoubtedly, this regiment was not typical. It obtained a reputation as one of the toughest and best drilled regiments in the hardest fighting corps of the Army of the Potomac. It earned this stature at the cost of almost 300 combat fatalities—more than any other Union regiment suffered during the entire conflict (although, to be fair, several other regiments have made good claims to this bloody record). These facts alone would seem to disqualify the 5th New Hampshire as a medium for studying the diverse experiences of Civil War soldiers. And yet, so far from making the regiment unsuited for such an investigation, the unit’s deep and repeated immersion in the brutality of Civil War combat makes it an ideal subject of study.
Indeed, the nature of the 5th New Hampshire’s exposure to combat throws a number of significant issues into high relief. Most obviously, the regiment’s participation in numerous battles provides us with much material from which to make generalizations about how soldiers performed under fire and what they thought of that ordeal. The repeated exposure to physical and psychological trauma also raise the questions about morale and discipline–what exactly bound the regiment together as it suffered such high losses? And what did soldiers in the regiment think about Northern war aims that required such enormous sacrifices on their part? At the same time, the heavy casualties suffered by the unit yield a great deal of information about the experiences of soldiers as they passed through the Union army’s medical system.
Perhaps even more important, the 5th New Hampshire’s high rate of attrition produced important changes in the unit that present in exaggerated form some of the dynamics that characterized the mobilization of Northern manpower in the later years of the war. Starting in the summer of 1863, losses were made good mainly through the Enrollment Act of 1863 (which imposed conscription). This means of raising men transformed the 5th New Hampshire because it produced large numbers of immigrant substitutes whose relationships to their officers and to the home front were quite different from those of the native-born volunteers who had originally filled the ranks. The New Hampshire home front was fundamentally complicit in this transformation as it sought to replace the blood tax imposed on its young men with a money tax that bought strangers. The huge shift in these relationships, along with other factors (including sustained contact with the enemy that started with the Overland campaign), facilitated the colossal rise of desertion that the regiment witnessed during the last 20 months of the war. In other words, the regiment’s experiences are emblematic of developments (albeit in exaggerated form) that characterized much of the Northern army throughout the latter part of the conflict.
My hypothesis (yet to be tested thoroughly by research) is that the war witnessed an enormous change in the 5th New Hampshire’s composition that fundamentally modified its relationship to the home front. New Hampshire started the war with volunteer units that had deep roots in local communities. These communities took a proprietary interest in the regiments, companies, and individual soldiers that they raised. Small-town newspapers reported the doings of these soldiers in great detail and with much frequency. Friends, neighbors, and family in these towns provided the soldiers they knew with money, clothing, moral support, and, in some cases, equipment. The deaths of these volunteers often became an important event in the life of these men’s home towns. During the second half of the war, however, this connection had eroded badly. People on the home front still awaited anxiously for news about the few volunteers who remained with the regiment and even the small number of draftees who then served (all of whom were New Hampshire natives). Otherwise, they seemed to take little interest in the mass of substitutes who filled the ranks of the unit—many of whom were foreign-born and appeared to be motivated solely by the huge bounties that were offered for enlistment. At the same time, bitter partisan divisions in New Hampshire over Northern war aims also contributed to ambivalent feelings about the cause for which the regiment fought. These factors contributed to a disengagement between the home and war fronts. It is easy to exaggerate this development. For example, evidence suggests that many of the original volunteers were compelled to enlist by more than just patriotism—economic factors appeared to have played an important role throughout the war. Yet, the evidence is clear that as the character of the regiment changed, so did its connection to civilians back home in New Hampshire.