Zachery A. Fry: Union Soldiers and the Press in the Civil War

Today we welcome a guest post from Zachery A. Fry, author of A Republic in the Ranks: Loyalty and Dissent in the Army of the Potomacout now from UNC Press.

The Army of the Potomac was a hotbed of political activity during the Civil War. As a source of dissent widely understood as a frustration for Abraham Lincoln, its onetime commander, George B. McClellan, even secured the Democratic nomination for president in 1864. But in this comprehensive reassessment of the army’s politics, Zachery A. Fry argues that the war was an intense political education for its common soldiers. Fry examines several key crisis points to show how enlisted men developed political awareness that went beyond personal loyalties. By studying the struggle between Republicans and Democrats for political allegiance among the army’s rank and file, Fry reveals how captains, majors, and colonels spurred a pro-Republican political awakening among the enlisted men, culminating in the army’s resounding Republican voice in state and national elections in 1864.

A Republic in the Ranks is available in hardcover and ebook editions.


Union Soldiers and the Press in the Civil War

The thought of American soldiers somehow being ineligible to vote is an alarming one. Yet during the Civil War, thousands of men had abdicated the franchise, their state legislatures insisted, by donning the blue Union uniform and marching beyond their home state’s borders to fight on southern battlefields. Not surprisingly, these soldiers fumed at the home front politicians who had deprived them of the vote and improvised with other ways to declare their politics. One of these substitute voting methods was writing opinion pieces for home front newspapers.

Soldier-correspondents were common in the Union Army of the Potomac, the main field army serving in the Virginia theater of the war. Often they were prewar writers, students, or clerks who knew how to turn a good phrase and keep the folks at home entertained. The writings of 1861 and 1862 show a focus on the drudgery of marching and the boredom of camp life punctuated by the occasional drama of the battlefield. Politics was not a main concern, even after Lincoln’s Democratic opponents made gains in the 1862 midterm elections. By March 1863, however, a full two years into the conflict, Union policy had shifted dramatically with the adoption of emancipation and conscription, giving rise to a vocal set of pro-peace “Copperhead” Democrats at home who assailed the Lincoln administration. In response, the army rallied to the newspaper opinion piece to channel a rhetoric of violence against peace agitators.

Leading the army’s political response to the antiwar movement was its subordinate officer corps—volunteer captains, majors, and colonels who wrote unit resolutions and saw to their adoption by the ranks of the Army of the Potomac. In language espousing violent retaliation against the Copperheads, scores of regiments and batteries pledged their service on behalf of the administration to settle scores with the antiwar “fire in the rear.” The 82nd Illinois, for example, derided their own state’s legislature as “detestable scum” for criticizing the war effort, while the 40th New York cautioned readers at home to spurn any “lepers and outcasts” who would disagree with the Lincoln administration.[1] The 149th Pennsylvania hailed Union policy as the work of “Freedom against Slavery, right against wrong, of God against Satan.”[2] Civil religion dovetailed with an exacting, militant view of wartime loyalty. When a handful of soldiers voiced opposition to these resolutions, their comrades dismissed the ratio of Lincoln opponents to supporters in the ranks as “not greater than that of Judas Iscariot to the other disciples.”[3] Professional officers—those educated at West Point and holding regular army commissions—expressed horror at such a blatant blurring of military and partisan political behavior. But the lower ranks, the many thousands of civilian-soldiers who had volunteered to put down the rebellion, exhibited little patience for such nuance, believing in earnest that the moment demanded strong action to save the war effort from the jaws of defeat.

Republican newspaper editors throughout the North reprinted these letters and resolutions for several weeks, showing that the same soldiers who had been denied absentee ballots would nonetheless assume their place as the guardians of national civic virtue. Their example, proselytized in seemingly every northern newspaper big and small, helped define the Republican response to antiwar rhetoric ahead of critical state elections in the spring and fall of 1863. Indeed, this effort laid the groundwork for political activity in the ranks that would contribute to Lincoln’s reelection once Union soldiers finally received the right to vote in the field by 1864.

[1] Joseph R. Reinhart, Yankee Dutchmen under Fire (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2013), 62-63.

[2] “The Army and the Copperheads; A Voice from the One Hundred and Forty-ninth Pennsylvania Bucktails, Encamped near Belle Plain, Va.” New York Times, March 23, 1863.

[3] Stephen W. Sears, Mr. Dunn Browne’s Experiences in the Army: The Civil War Letters of Samuel Fiske (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), 64-67.


Photo by Emily Fry

Zachery A. Fry is assistant professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.