Our family archives, rich in material for some branches of the tree as they are, contain very little first hand testimony as to why my ancestors enlisted in various Union regiments (and one Confederate) during the Civil War. Their pension records provide some clues, along with a rare surviving letter or two, but there is nothing definitive about their motivations for doing so. Still, one can draw a few inferences.
Brothers Theodore and Nathaniel Abbott were 19 and 17 years old respectively according to the 1860 census and lived in New York City. Theodore was a mechanic who enlisted in May, 1861 in the 9th New York (Hawkin's Zouaves) and served for a two year enlistment. Nathaniel joined the 133rd NY (2nd Metropolitans), a unit that recruited heavily from the metropolitan police force in which his father was then a policeman and in which the son would also serve after the war.
There were a number of younger Abbott siblings as well as their maternal grandmother living in their apartment, so one of their motives may have been the 13 dollars a month (and in Nathaniel's case, an enlistment bounty) to provide support for the family. Theodore''s early enlistment in a flamboyant Zouave unit may also indicate a sense of adventure. Nathaniel fell sick soon after arriving at Fort Monroe and was left behind when his regiment sailed for Louisiana, but the following year he enrolled in the 10th Regiment Veteran Reserve Corps and served until late 1865. Whether money or patriotism prompted his reenlistment can only be speculated but he was certainly under no legal obligation to do so.
Private William Taylor was mustered into Company A, 1st NY "Lincoln" Cavalry on July 27th, 1861 in New York City. A first generation immigrant from England, a weaver by trade with a wife and young family, he chose a branch of service for which he may not have been suited, for he was discharged disabled that October after been thrown from a horse at Camp Meigs in Washington, D.C. Again, gainful employment may have motivated his service, but perhaps also a feeling of duty to his new country. He died from complications from his injuries in 1864.
Young Samuel Barker, Jr. lied about his age to enlist in the 37th Wisconsin Infantry in March, 1865. He and his unhappily married mother and young sister were living in poverty when he enrolled. He served less than 90 days and was sick in camp as well when the war ended. The enlistment bounty was a prime motivator for him, according to a surviving family letter.
William Nisbet Olmsted was a member of the elite 7th NYSM, a bandbox regiment which claimed members from the best of New York City Society. He served for one month at the outset of the war, marching to the Capitol and purloining Congressional Stationery before heading back to New York and a career in the China Trade. For him, he met his obligation as a gentleman to show courage and do his duty but appears had no stronger attachment to fighting in the cause of the Union.
The Confederate Brigadier from New Jersey, Archibald Gracie, Jr. fought for the honor of his wife and mother's people who were from the South, initially as captain of a militia company in Mobile where he had managed his family's business interests since resigning from the US Infantry in 1856.Charles G. Johnson of New York was a wagoner, Company B, 5th New York Volunteer Inf. (Duryea's Zouaves) 1861-1863 and then for a third year in Company G., 146th New York Volunteer Inf. He was a deeply religious man and this may well have helped him withstand the stress of long service, as McPherson notes in For Cause and Comrades, but I do not know whether he held abolitionist sentiments. Nor do I know what motivated Jesse M. Jones to enlist as Hospital Steward on the U.S.S. Monitor, but he fortuitously resigned before the ironclad foundered off Cape Hatteras.
Patriotism, a better life, belonging to something bigger than themselves. Bonds of family, class and friendship. Honor and courage and the ideals of manhood. I sense that these may have been behind some of their decisions to fight. The fact of their service does not mean that they were at all times heroic, nor that they held to the highest of purposes. They were, after all, human beings with human frailties. But they did enlist, and in some cases reenlist, and whether they stepped off at the very outset or in the very last moments of the war, all of them volunteered and for whatever personal reasons felt it was the right choice.