“Costume Suggested for the Brave Stay-at-Home Light Guard”

September 7, 1861

artist unknown

“Costume Suggested for the Brave Stay-at-Home Light Guard”

Civil War, Enlistment; Civil War, Homefront; Civil War, Union Military; Home Life; U.S. Military; Wars, American Civil War;

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This is one of several Harper's Weekly cartoons that questioned the manliness of Northern men who did not volunteer for Union military service at the start of the Civil War.  Here, the "stay-at-home" is armed with broom, dustpan, and feather duster, while uniformed in a dress, hairbrush epaulets, and cooking-pot hat.  Although images in Harper's Weekly and elsewhere extolled the importance of women contributing to the Union cause through various auxiliary services (e.g., nursing, preparing medical kits, or raising money), the proper place for eligible men in wartime was considered to be in the military.  By violating that social expectation for men, the "stay-at-home" is ridiculed as a coward hiding in the domestic role of a woman.

When the Civil War began in April 1861, the American military was ill prepared.  There were just over 16,000 men in the U.S. Army, mainly scattered across the Western frontier, and only 42 ships in the U.S. Navy, most patrolling far from American shores.  Almost one-third of the army's officers and over one-fifth of the navy's officers resigned to fight for the Confederacy.   

On April 15, President Abraham Lincoln activated 75,000 state militiamen for three-month federal service, provoking criticism that the number was far too low.  On May 3, he called for 42,000 army volunteers for three-year enrollments and 18,000 navy volunteers for one- to three-year contracts, and he expanded the regular army by nearly 23,000.  In July, the reconvened Congress ratified the president's unilateral actions, and approved recruitment of an additional one million volunteers for three-year terms.  

Many Northern state governments had been preparing for armed conflict with the South even before the war officially began.  After the first clash of arms in April, Union states competed as a point of pride to recruit the most men, and (like the Confederacy) had no problem filling their quotas and beyond.  In towns across the North, when word arrived of the call for recruits, posters were tacked up announcing a public meeting, at which local notables spoke on the need for fulfilling one's patriotic duty.  Men in the audience signed enlistment contracts, and then elected their military leaders from the local community, while the women of the town began sewing uniforms.  Within a week or so, the volunteers left their town for the state capital, where they joined similar units from communities throughout the state.  Indeed, volunteers enlisted at such a rate that initially federal and state officials could not keep them all properly armed, fed, drilled, or equipped.  

This cartoon appeared in the wake of the First Battle of Bull Run, when realization that the war would not be quickly won had set in, and as the three-month enlistments of the early volunteers were up for renewal.  Cartoons such as this one were a humorous way to encourage or shame Northern men into reenlisting or joining for the first time; in fact, many of the three-month enlistees signed on for three-year tours of duty.  

The regular army never fulfilled its recruitment goals, but that situation was more than remedied by the flood of volunteers--640,000 by December 1861--enlisted by the Union states to fight in state units under state banners (e.g., 69th New York).  As with recruitment, the men representing their states competed for battlefield glory with their compatriots from other Union states.  By 1863, however, the number of volunteers proved insufficient, and the Union, like the Confederacy a year before, resorted to an unpopular military draft, which included a controversial provision allowing draftees to pay for a substitute to fight in their place.  During the course of the war, the Union put about 50% of its young white men into service (2.6 million), while the Confederacy, with a smaller population, utilized at least 80%. 

Robert C. Kennedy

“Costume Suggested for the Brave Stay-at-Home Light Guard”
July 14, 2024

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