Ideology on Trial: A Common Cavalryman Goes to War

By Abigail Adam

This past Fall, the Special Collections & College Archives of Gettysburg College’s Musselman Library received, through the generous donation of Kerry Cotter of Easton, Maryland 21 letters penned by her ancestor, Private Eli S. Knowlton of the 3rd New York Cavalry. Over the course of the Fall semester, CWI Fellows Abigail Adam (’22) and Ziv Carmi (’23) transcribed these letters for future researchers and interpreted them through additional contextual information from census records, pension files, and secondary source reading.  The following is a post authored by Abby offering her reflections on some of the main interpretive themes and take-aways she gathered from her transcription work with Knowlton’s letters.

View the Knowlton letters through the GettDigital Database

Like many Civil War soldiers, throughout his nearly two-and-a-half years of service in the Union army, Private Eli S. Knowlton of the 3rd New York Cavalry penned numerous letters to his family. Some of the letters from January of 1863 through December of 1864 still survive. Eyeing the yellow pages and faded ink, modern readers can imagine the scent of campfire smoke while Knowlton sweated in the North Carolina and Virginia heat. Many times, Knowlton’s military obligations left him exhausted by the time he picked up his pen. Other times, he complained that sitting in the shade and writing was the only thing to do amidst the monotony of camp life. He talked about daily life as a soldier and his battle experiences, and reacted to the news his family shared with him. He openly relayed his opinions about army life, his comrades, the Confederacy, and the war as a whole, and was not afraid to let his emotions direct his writing. Anger, homesickness, happiness, and disgust pepper his accounts. Through such candid writing, modern readers can examine, among other interesting features of Knowlton’s life, the motivation behind his initial enlistment in the army, his sustaining motivations for remaining on the front lines, and his own evolving views of the continuously evolving Union war effort.

Eli S. Knowlton was born around 1843 to Seneca and Polly Knowlton. The Knowltons owned a family farm in Clarkson, New York. Though Eli attended school when he was young, he later admitted to being a poor student. His lack of attention to formal education is also evident through the spelling in his letters: ‘Any’ became “enny”, ‘month’ became “munth”, and ‘guerillas’ became “Garilleyes,” to name just a few examples. Modern readers can imagine him sounding out particularly difficult words, carefully penning them exactly as they sounded. On August 13, 1862, Knowlton enlisted in Company M of the 3rd New York Cavalry. He would serve for two years and nine months. But why did he enlist, and why did he wait until sixteen months into the war to do so?

In his letters, Knowlton appears unenthusiastic about serving, demonstrating that he did not enlist for glory or adventure. He also makes numerous racist and disparaging comments about African Americans, forcefully declaring that he did not enlist for the abolitionist cause, and lamenting being forced to fight for the freedom of the slaves. On January 28, 1863, shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation (which made it legal for black men to join the army) went into effect, he wrote that he would rather be captured by the Confederates than serve alongside African Americans.  Such a declaration is revealing, considering how dishonorable and shameful many soldiers regarded allowing oneself to be captured by the enemy! Knowlton’s stance on race was certainly common amongst numerous Union soldiers, most of whom enlisted to restore the Union, and not out of any affection for African Americans or any strong inclinations toward emancipation or abolition. However, Knowlton’s home community was notoriously in favor of emancipation. Many community members were even abolitionists. As such, Knowlton’s views may have caused some tension within the regiment. Or, perhaps Knowlton knew his opinions were unpopular and thus saved them for his letters.

Interestingly, while Knowlton may have fancifully wished, in early 1863, to be captured by the Confederates rather than serve alongside black soldiers, his notions of martial masculinity, duty, and honor appear to have ultimately helped to sustain his commitment to remaining in the Union army as the months wore on. Knowlton wrote strongly about his disgust for army deserters. In one instance, he called a deserting man a “Coward” and a “pisspot,” and regularly disparaged the manhood and courage of those who left the front lines. 

However, as was true for many other soldiers, Knowlton’s views on matters such as duty and desertion were not necessarily one-dimensional, and at times, came into direct conflict with each other. Throughout his army career, Knowlton was perpetually homesick. On January 28, 1863, he wrote of his wish to enjoy cider and donuts in his parents’ new house—one of the countless references to his longing for home, family, and familial traditions. He followed this statement with a rather dejected message: “the old Saying is I cant allways be with you”. Sometimes, Knowlton would address parts of his letter to his younger brother, Randolph “Ran” Knowlton. Eli clearly missed Ran. He asked him to relay how the neighborhood “Gals” looked that spring, emphasizing that he wished he could be there, too. He also asked Ran to relay local adventures with friends. As he wrote, “tell me what for a time you had and all about it for as I Cant take a peace of that fun I wood like to hear how the rest of you take it”.  Such longings for home at one point caused him to toy with the idea of deserting the army. At the very least, he wished he could do it. On January 28, 1863, Knowlton wrote that some of his friends had “dug out” of the army, reflecting that “all I have to regret is that I had not dug to”. Nevertheless, Knowlton’s desire to leave simmered down as time went on. He became increasingly interested in seeing Union military success, as well as connecting his honor and masculinity to the success of his regiment.” Knowlton himself directly addressed this change in his attitude. He admitted that, in the past, he would have considered desertion. However, by August 13, 1863, he would not even entertain the idea. In a spirited flourish, Knowlton ended that same letter in which he called a deserter a “Coward” and a “pisspot” with the following crass, yet honest statement: “thay can kiss my US ass all of them.”

Another theme that runs throughout Knowlton’s letters—and a thread that sheds considerable light on why he may have chosen to enlist in the first place—is his continuous, open discussion of his finances and the money he routinely sent home to his family.  This trend suggests that he may have seen military service as an opportunity for steady employment, and may have finally chosen to enlist in the late summer of 1862 out of financial necessity, or perhaps fear of the draft, combined with community pressures to join up. One aspect of Knowlton’s life suggests that his enlistment was economically motivated. The 1860 census listed that the Knowlton property was worth $1,960. This value is the equivalent of $61,451.67 in 2020. In comparison, only 7% of homes in modern-day Clarkson, New York, fall between $50,000 and $99,000. The average home value is $150,100. Thus, the Knowltons were certainly not a wealthy family.

Eli Knowlton’s letters also had a large financial emphasis. On January 10,1863, Knowlton wrote that he sent $15 to his family and planned to send an additional $20 upon his next paycheck. This was a considerable amount, considering that he had received a total of $54.80 thus far. A few months later, Knowlton defended his inability to send more money to his parents. They presumably caught wind that John, a fellow soldier, was sending more money home than Knowlton was. Modern readers can imagine Knowlton tensing up as he defended himself through his writing. He was quick to explain that he was ill over the winter and thus needed to buy nutritious food. He also iterated that John gained his money from sources outside the military. If anything, Eli and John were paid the exact same amount. Eli, perhaps feeling guilty or under pressure, finished his tangent by promising to send more money upon his next paycheck. Such continuous, and sometimes quite passionate, references both to his own finances as well as to the economic viability of his parents and the family farm seem to suggest that economic stability may have loomed large as a motivating—and sustaining—factor for Knowlton’s army service.  Again, such motivation was hardly unique among Union soldiers, and often times it was a blend of reasons—economic, political, social, cultural, and ideological—that shaped men’s decisions to enlist, and helped, alongside commitment to comrades, to sustain them through the dark days of the war.

            Eli S. Knowlton’s letters provide fascinating insights into the daily life of a Union cavalryman during the Civil War. But, his surviving letters also highlight his humanity as a loving son and brother who cared deeply about his family. He was a complex man of numerous opinions, many of which shifted and changed throughout the war. Those opinions were complicated, sometimes contradictory, and could even cause conflict among his fellow soldiers. Soldiers such as Knowlton used the war to bolster their notions of pride, honor, duty, and masculinity, which, in turn, gave meaning to soldiers’ wartime experiences. Those experiences also changed many men as they navigated the horrors of war, interacted with new people of diverse backgrounds, and underwent challenges that were completely new to them. Many travelled farther than ever before and witnessed events so incredible that paper accounts could only hint at their impact. In fascinating and sometimes unexpected ways, these experiences both transformed the emotional and ideological worlds of soldiers such as Knowlton, while also reinforcing their commitment to the fight ahead.

Sources: 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. New York, U.S., Grand Army of the Republic Records, 1866-1931 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013.

The Eli S. Knowlton letters

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