In mid-1863 the Federal government began work to stave off a crisis that could hobble the war effort. Beginning in May 1864 the three-year enlistments of many military units—dozens of them from Illinois—would expire, releasing hundreds of thousands of men from the army at the very height of the campaign season.
The problem and a solution
Officers of the War Department noted in June 1863—as Grant ground away against Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Robert E. Lee began his second invasion of the North—that over the next eighteen months the enlistments of 455 of 956 volunteer regiments would expire. This reality, coupled with the realization that “loss by expiration of enlistment of entire regiments…after they had seen service enough to become valuable soldiers, proved a serious drawback to military operation during the first two years of the war,” led the secretary of war to issue on June 25, 1863, General Orders No. 191.
The orders allowed men who had served for nine months or more to reenlist as “veteran volunteers” for a term of three years or the war. Veteran volunteers were offered $402 in enlistment incentives known as “bounty” from the U.S. government, $100 of which was conferred due to their veteran status. The plan allowed veterans to serve with old regiments of their choice. The full amount of bounty was to be paid in installments even if men were discharged honorably before their term expired, or to heirs on a soldier’s death. Perhaps as important as any financial incentive, reenlisting veterans were to receive, “[A]s the exigencies of the service will permit,” a thirty-day furlough to visit their families. Where over one-half of the men reenlisted, a unit would receive the honored designation of “Veteran.”
Why would men who had for over two years faced hardship and violent death enlist to experience more of the same? Letters from soldiers that were published in local newspapers often described a strong desire to see through to the end the cause for which they had been sacrificing. Other soldiers spoke in less public forums of being called by a loyalty to the comrades with whom they had shared the dangers of soldiering.
While willing to continue to suffer for cause and friends, some veterans suggested that their reenlistment might be based upon the government requiring more “stay-at-homes” to serve in the army. General George H. Thomas was referring to such men when he wrote from Chattanooga, Tennessee, in December 1863 that “The soldiers express a desire to re-enlist, but by so doing they do not wish to relieve from the operations of the draft those men who stay at home to make money whilst they continue to expose their lives to the vicissitudes of war.”
Perhaps the most important incentive to reenlistment was the thirty-day furlough during which men could visit their families. Gerald Linderman argues that many soldiers who had experienced more than two years of fighting did not believe they would survive through to the 1864 end of their first enlistment. For them the veteran furlough provided the one certain chance of ever seeing loved ones again.
Illinois units that had veteranized began to arrive home on furlough beginning in January 1864. Most did so to a noisy welcome. The reception of units that disembarked in Springfield before heading to their hometowns followed what became a common pattern.
On January 18 cannon heralded the arrival of the Seventh Infantry at the Great Western depot. “So great was the interest to see this veteran and gallant regiment” that teachers allowed their charges to attend the event “to gratify their curiosity.” Led by fire companies and bands, the regiment marched to the statehouse where Governor Yates introduced the men in Representatives’ Hall, which was “crowded with ladies.” The governor spoke for 45 minutes, followed by the unit’s first commander, Gen. John Cook, who spent an hour outlining the unit’s history. Colonel Rowett, noting that the men were “weary and hungry…presumed the ‘boys’ would rather eat than to hear speeches” and the men marched off to a banquet offered by the ladies of Springfield. Before the closing of the ceremonies the regiment presented “the national colors and the colors of the regiment, riddled with shot and shell, showing the deadly nature of the conflict in which they have been engaged.”
Smaller Illinois cities and towns also did their utmost to welcome long-absent fathers, sons, and brothers. In Galena the Rev. J. F. Yates of Methodist church published a long poem of welcome to the Jo Daviess County Guards, reciting at length the unit’s battle history and honoring the dead. The return of numerous small units to La Salle County meant that “the fair ground at Ottawa was almost constantly in use as a military camp for several months, one after another.” In nearby Warren the ladies welcomed furloughed men of the Fifteenth and Forty-fifth infantry regiments. Tables “fairly groaned under the weight of good things” prepared for the dinner. About 500 attended the event, about 80 of them veterans. Many receptions were attended by Governor Yates, who was reported to have spent much of March 1864 criss-crossing the state to welcome returning veterans.
Was it a success?
By all measures the effort to keep veterans in the army was a success. Provost Marshal General James B. Fry reported in 1866 that nationally over 136,000 veterans reenlisted at the end of their original term of service. He noted with pride that “the patriotic determination of these troops who had taken a prominent part in the war to continue it until brought to a satisfactory close was the foundation of the success which attended this enterprise.”
In Illinois, the adjutant general reported that of 69 regiments of infantry and cavalry that had enlisted in 1861 for a three-year term, 58 of them veteranized when over half their membership reenlisted for another three years. He wrote during the reenlistment effort, “All honor to them that have so proudly borne themselves, all honor to them that they still swear fresh allegiance to their country, and, with unconquered spirit resolve never to sheath their swords except over the grave of treason, and the vindicated authority of the Government and our glorious union restored.”
Interested in learning more?
Many Illinois newspapers published in late 1863 and early 1864 contain soldier letters discussing the issue of reenlistment, as well as describing events held to honor local boys during their furlough. A popular study of the reasons for enlisting (and reenlisting) in the Civil War military is James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1998). In Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (1998) Gerald Linderman argues that many men reenlisted in order to take advantage of the veteran furlough, fearing that they might be killed in 1864 before the end of their initial term of service (see pages 261-64).