In July and August 1862, Niagara County was the scene of an intense effort to enlist men in the 129th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The 129th would later be changed to the 8th New York Heavy Artillery.
Recruiting was accomplished through the creation of recruiting offices in county villages and meetings held in town halls, schools and churches in smaller communities. Men who signed enlistment rolls were later mustered into the army when they signed a volunteer enlistment form. The recruits pledged their true faith and allegiance to the United States of America; agreed to serve for three years; and promised to obey the orders of the president and the officers appointed over them.
In addition to their sworn statements, recruits had to pass a physical exam and prove to the satisfaction of the recruiting agent that they were sober, of lawful age (18) and duly qualified to perform the duties of an able-bodied soldier.
Warfare was practically unknown to most of the men who volunteered. A few of those who enlisted in 1862 had served in another regiment earlier in the war. By the summer of 1862, the length of the time of enlistment had increased to three years, as the war was no longer viewed as being a short-term conflict.
For men who had lived in small communities or on farms all of their lives, war was seen as an exciting alternative to a quiet and, for some, a boring existence. Photography was in its infancy. The only war photographed prior to the Civil war was the Crimean War, 1853 to 1856. The pictures from the Crimean War were mainly scenic or showed soldiers posing in camp. The reality of war was missing.
Men who wanted to know what war was like had to rely on stories told by veterans of the Mexican War and the War of 1812 and written accounts of wars fought in the Western Hemisphere or in Europe. The paintings of artists, who may have viewed war or recorded what they were told by others, presented an often unrealistic picture of the true nature of war.
Bergholtz, Dickersonville, Gasport, Hartland, Lockport, Newfane, Niagara Falls, Pekin, Royalton, Wilson and Youngstown were among the communities which held recruiting meetings.
A typical meeting would involve local leaders, military representative, politicians and veterans who would speak about the need for young men to serve their country in its time of crisis. Bands or choruses would perform. Refreshments would be served. In some cases, the women of a community would prepare a dinner for the occasion.
In addition to the exhortations of the speakers of the need for men to enlist, young women played an important role in helping young men make a decision on whether or not to enlist. Kisses were promised to men who volunteered, and often the women vowed not to have anything to do with those who did not sign up.
A different kind of incentive was made by 51 women from Lockport who offered to take the jobs of men who worked as clerks in dry-goods stores in the village. The women would work for half the wages of men they replaced, with the other half of the salary going to the enlistee when he returned from the war. The women also promised to relinquish their jobs to the men when they re-turned.
A private's monthly pay in August 1962 was $13. Bounties were offered by the national, state and county governments as inducements to enlist. In addition to the $200 in bounties, recruits were offered additional incentives at local meetings. Farmers would offer horses, cows, pigs and other livestock if a certain number of men enlisted during the meeting. The items would be sold and the money raised would be divided among the new recruits.
Wealthy citizens would offer money to the enlistees. Because 21 was the age of majority, young men under that age were expected to help support their families until they turned 21, or were married and had responsibilities of their own. As a result, food was often promised by farmers to the families of men who signed up as a way of helping the family cope with the loss of services due to enlistment.
The most common reasons given by recruits for enlisting as shown in their letters were "save the Union" and "lick the Rebs." Underlying those words was a common belief that had been nurtured in the homes, churches and schools of the time, that the United States of America was a nation worth saving and as a citizen of that country a man should show his allegiance by answering its call.
For the 8th Heavy Artillery, it would mean serving the United States to the extent that it would lose the second-highest number of men killed in battle and dead of battle-related wounds of any regiments in the Union Army during the Civil War.
WILBUR R. DUNN is the author of "Full Measure of Devotion," a two-volume book that tells the story of the 8th New York Volunteer Heavy Artillery. The regiment, which was raised in Western New York, came predominantly from Niagara, Genesee and Orleans counties.
The book is available at the Niagara County Historical Society's gift shop, the Niagara County historian's office, the Book Corner in Niagara Falls, Old Fort Niagara, Niagara Frontier State Park gift shops and at 6133 Corwin Ave., Newfane, N.Y. 14108 (778-8974).
The Niagara County Historical Society's museum and gift shop at 215 Niagara St., Lockport, are open Thursday through Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. They can be reached at 434-7433.