For Cause, Country, Comrades, or Capital?: Examining A Common Cavalryman’s Civil War

By Ziv Carmi

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 Ziv offering his reflections on some of the main interpretive themes and take-aways he gathered from his transcription work with Knowlton’s letters.

While it may be clear today that the Civil War was fought over slavery, to many of the soldiers fighting for the North, neither emancipation nor racial equality was the primary motivator early in the war. Rather, most people believed that the war was to be waged for the sake of Union, and that ending slavery should—and indeed had to—take a back seat to restoring the nation. From the mere private to the commander of the Army of the Potomac, combatants vehemently voiced such sentiments time and again. Indeed, when the Civil War transformed from a war for Union to a war for emancipation, attitudes toward the latter were quite hostile. Due to the evolving aims of the war, many soldiers were forced to rethink, and ultimately adapted, their views on slavery and race. Indeed, the motivations of soldiers were incredibly complex and often dynamic. However, they could also be deeply personal and defy easy political classification or understanding. Such is true in the case of Eli Knowlton, a private with the 3rd New York Cavalry, who, through a series of letters with his parents, illuminates his personal exploits as a common cavalryman while giving us raw and curious insights into his own possibly evolving views on the war and his varied motivations for fighting.

Born circa 1842 or 1843, Knowlton, a resident of Monroe County, enlisted in August of 1862 for three years of service with the 3rd New York Cavalry. Spending much of the first few years of the war in North Carolina, the regiment was then transferred to Kautz’s Division of Cavalry in the Army of the James in April of 1864 to serve mainly around Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Suffolk, Virginia during the Petersburg Campaign. Private Knowlton was wounded on May 8, 1864, likely during action at Nottoway Bridge. He eventually returned to service and was discharged in May of 1865, having served a total of 2 years and 9 months with the federal military.

Standard of the 3rd New York Volunteer Cavalry (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons). According to the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, this enormous flag was 58 ½ inches hoist and 71 ¼ inches fly, featuring the Arms of the City of New York and a ribbon stating, “Presented by the City of New York.”

While we will never know his exact motivations for joining the Union army, it appears that financial necessity may have played a significant factor. The Knowlton family’s personal estate value was listed as $843 on the 1860 census, which is approximately $95,000 when adjusted for inflation (assuming that the average inflation rate since 1860 was about 3%). Between this personal estate value and the fact that Eli Knowlton’s basic language and frequent spelling and grammatical errors indicate a fairly low level of education, it can be assumed that the Knowlton family was reasonably poor. Indeed, Knowlton refers numerous times in his letters to the importance of the soldier’s salary to the financial assistance of the family back home in New York.  Knowlton writes frequently to his parents that he was planning to send or already sent money home. Privates in the Union Army were paid $13 per month, approximately $1,300 when adjusted for inflation (assuming that the average inflation rate since 1865 was about 3%) (American Battlefield Trust). While this salary may seem meager, it is clear that Knowlton saved as much of it as he could for his parents, indicating that they were in financial need. Given Knowlton’s comparatively late enlistment, it is possible that he remained at home to work on the farm and ensure the family’s financial independence. However, the acquisition of a soldier’s salary, in addition to bounty money, may ultimately have proven more lucrative than his farm work. Additionally, given that he wrote on multiple occasions about the purchase of a new family farm, he may have ultimately chosen to enlist to help his parents afford to buy the new piece of property.

Motivations of Union soldiers were often multifaceted, however, and one cannot discount the political sway that the idea of Union likely carried in Eli’s choice to enlist. As historian Chandra Manning writes, “the average white Northerner would have much preferred not to think about the issue of slavery at all;” however, the “ordinary white guy” who enlisted with the Union in the early stages of the war believed that allowing unchallenged secession as a reaction to an election would make a global spectacle of American self-government as a failed experiment, which would, in turn, impede the spread of democracy around the world (Manning 3). While the notion of America as an exceptional beacon of democracy might strike some as more of a 20th-century idea, Manning explains that many soldiers wrote about these sorts of ideas with significant emotion in letters to their parents, spouses, or siblings (Manning 2). Such was the case in the letters of a Massachusetts private, who wrote to his wife in 1862 that he felt “the liberty of the world is placed in our hands to defend, and if we are overcome then farewell to freedom” (McPherson 30). A Connecticut soldier echoed his words, writing in 1863, that if the “traitors be allowed to overthrow and break asunder ties most sacred… all the hope and confidence of the world in the capacity of men for self government will be lost… and perhaps be followed by a long night of tyranny” (McPherson 30).

Many Federal soldiers also believed that, in fighting to preserve the Union, they were defending and perpetuating the legacy of their Revolutionary-era forefathers who had risked their lives to secure for them what Lincoln would call “the last best hope of democratic government.” We can see these sacred beliefs reflected in the writings of scores of soldiers, including one Missourian, who wrote to his parents in 1861 that “we fight for the blessings bought by the blood and treasure of our Fathers,” as well as a lieutenant from Ohio, who wrote to his wife that “Our Fathers made this country, we, their children are to save it… without Union & peace our freedom is worthless…” (McPherson 28-29) Given the myriad ways that Unionist sentiments shaped the political notions and daily worldviews of most northern soldiers, it is difficult to fathom that Eli Knowlton escaped the powerful influence of Unionism when it came time to sign his enlistment papers. What is most curious is that Knowlton himself does not discuss the topic of Union more in his letters; rather, he focuses mostly on the day-to-day drudgeries of camp life or gloats about the exploits of recent raids and damages he and his comrades have incurred on Confederates and southern infrastructure. Such focus on the day-to-day is common amongst Civil War soldier letters, but the near absence of reflections on “the Cause” is not, making one wonder if the absence of such discussion might be a reflection on his personal political motivations to enlist.

Another reason Knowlton might have enlisted was out of personal pride and concern for his reputation. Monroe County was a region where men enlisted with great enthusiasm at the onset of the war. William Peck, a local historian, noted that Monroe County was one of the first in New York to mobilize in April 1861 (Peck 80). Peck also boasted that “few sections of the country responded more promptly than did Monroe County” and that “few sent more troops into the field in proportion to the population” (Peck, Landmarks of Monroe County, 93). While these claims are likely exaggerated, they reflect the pride that Monroe County held for its collective service in the war, even forty or fifty years after it ended, when these histories were written. This societal pride, and the fact that so many others enlisted and mobilized so early on in the war effort, might ultimately have placed so much societal pressure upon Knowlton that he felt compelled to enlist a year into the war. Knowlton may also have feared that if he did not join the army of his own accord, he might very well fall victim to the growing calls for a federal draft, which could rob him of his chance to earn a bounty and might soil his societal reputation.

Knowlton was clearly cognizant of and influenced by socio-cultural norms of the time regarding manhood and martial duty. He wrote his mother in August of 1863 that “Miller” (likely someone else from their town who had been serving with the army but had since gone AWOL) is a “Coward and A Pisspot” and that “if he had not been [he] wood not have never deserted” (August 13th, 1863 letter to Seneca and Polly Knowlton). However, Knowlton’s sentiments on martial masculinity and patriotic duty had clearly evolved throughout his first year of service, as he confessed to his mother in the same letter that he had told Miller that if he had known how difficult service would be, he himself would have “dug out,” but he has “changed his mind since,” indicating that his notions of duty had ultimately won out over his disgust and frustrations with the day-to-day life of soldiering. In a particularly biting rebuke of gossips back at home who dared to speak ill of him or his commitment to military service, Eli concluded, “you tell all them that Have So much to say about me That thay can kiss my US ass all of them” (August 13th, 1863 letter to Seneca and Polly Knowlton). While Knowlton’s initial regret over his enlistment is evident, his predominant focus is on his anger and frustration at people in his hometown claiming that he was a coward and wanted to desert. Indeed, the phrase “kiss my US ass” indicates that, even while writing about his discomfort on campaign, he was still proud of his service to the United States and sought to differentiate himself from the “cowards and pisspots” who had chosen to remain home. In such a county as Monroe in the 19th century, desertion and cowardice were prime indications of masculine weakness and poor character, not to mention possible disloyalty, and Knowlton wanted no such associations with his name.

Indeed, an examination of a local newspaper, The Brockport Republic, makes it clear that, to most in the county, any sort of anti-war sentiments were considered to be disloyal. For example, in October 1862, the newspaper discusses the state’s responses to Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, noting that the three Democratic politicians who condemned the proclamation (Horatio Seymour, the 1862 Democratic candidate for Governor, Fernando Wood, the incumbent mayor of New York City, and Gaylord Jay Clark, the Democratic ticket for Inspector of State Prisons) “have more sympathy with the rebels than with the federal authorities” (October 9, 1862 edition). While it is possible this rhetoric was unduly exaggerated due to 1862 being an election year, the Republic wrote similar criticisms of Seymour in later editions after he had been sworn in as governor, indicating that these sentiments were printed for more than short-term political purposes. Indeed, after Seymour criticized Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation for being an “unconstitutional attempt on the part of the President to carry on the war, not for the restoration of the Union but the abolishment of slavery,” the Republic defended Lincoln’s actions, noting that the President stated emancipation was done only for strategic purposes against the Confederacy and Lincoln was solely fighting to save the Union (February 9, 1863 edition).

Not only was Monroe County fiercely committed to the war effort, but an examination of the Brockport Republic reveals that the county was likely staunchly Republican, appearing to condemn slavery and its spread, although (initially) not wishing to entirely abolish it. For example, when discussing the Republican candidates who were nominated for the 1858 elections and their stances, the editor writes that four of them had been Democrats, but “when that party embraced slavery as its loyal child,” they “allied- as all true freemen must do- their interests with the genuine Democracy- the Republican Party” (October 2, 1857 edition). The newspaper then printed the platform of the Republican Party of New York, which stated that “it is a contradiction to call that man a Democrat who believes in the right of one man to enslave another” and “that slavery and official corruption and encroachment upon the purity of the ballot box are the great evils which threaten our institutions” (October 2, 1857 edition).

Furthermore, the Republican Party of New York resolved that New York would never allow slavery within its borders and condemned the Dred Scott decision (October 2, 1857 edition). Indeed, the newspaper also printed a condemnation of Illinois Democrats and other Free States that were “moving to introduce Slavery into their midst.” and praised the Convention of New York Republicans for their resolution regarding slavery within the state (October 2, 1857 edition). The column concluded by noting that Republicans put their principles “before the intelligent and free people” and if their readers think they are right, they should give them “that ardent, unwavering support, due from a freeman to any just, great, and [G-D]-like cause” (October 2, 1857 edition). This final sentence, which upholds opposition to slavery as a righteous cause, might allude to the anti-slavery sentiments of the county at large.

While the Knowltons’ neighbors appeared to oppose slavery, that did not necessarily mean the Knowlton family followed suit, nor that Eli Knowlton supported racial equality. In a January 16, 1863 letter, which Eli probably wrote shortly after hearing the news of the Emancipation Proclamation, Eli writes that “this Soldiering and fiteing for Nigars haint whott I thought I was a coming down hear for.” Indeed, his derisive and dismissive manner of discussing the Union’s shift to a war for emancipation implies that he likely did not particularly care for the idea of emancipation. He expanded upon this sentiment in his next letter from January 28. While discussing his war-weariness, Knowlton notes that “when [the government] fetch the white Boys of the North down on a levle and a little belo a d-d Southern nigar and make him fite beside them then I think the thing is pretty well played out” and later writes that he hoped that if he had “to go in to Battle with a nigar I will get tuck prisner and poraled [paroled]” (then noting that parole would be the quickest way to get out of fighting). Such vitriolic language makes clear that Eli felt personally debased by being forced to risk his life for black people and dreaded the possibility of having to fight alongside black troops as if they were his equal. The shocking fact that he openly admits that he would rather be taken prisoner than have to fight alongside black soldiers speaks volumes about his racial views and his refusal to embrace emancipation as a righteous and necessary war aim.

However, while Knowlton might have initially shared the racial attitudes of many of his peers who also expressed disgust over the Emancipation Proclamation, it is possible that those views changed and evolved throughout his time serving in the South.  Indeed, throughout the spring and summer of 1862, many Union soldiers serving on the Virginia Peninsula and around Richmond—very close to where Knowlton himself would serve from April 1864 onward—were profoundly changed by their first-hand experiences with slaves and slavery, on the march and in battle. Many of these soldiers encountered slaves for the first time after they had been “confiscated” by the military or had refugeed to contraband camps. As historian Glenn Brasher notes, during the Peninsula Campaign, a mutually beneficial relationship between fugitive slaves and soldiers developed. This relationship consisted of former enslaved people selling food to soldiers, doing manual labor such as digging trenches, working as servants for the officers, and even breaking the monotony soldiers felt by conversing and joking with them (Brasher 105). While, at this point, many soldiers still undoubtedly held bigoted notions of black people, there is no doubt that speaking directly with them and experiencing their humanity produced sympathy and even emancipationist sentiments in many soldiers.

Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of “contrabands” at Foller’s house. James F. Gibson. (Library of Congress)
Gibson’s picture was sold as a stenograph in the late 19th century (the Library of Congress does not give an exact date; however, it is clear that this dates to 1890 at the earliest). This description, printed on the back of the stenograph, captures Northern attitudes towards enslaved people who escaped their plantations to become “contraband” (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Furthermore, it became obvious to Union soldiers that black workers were extraordinarily beneficial to the war machines of whichever army utilized them. Indeed, following the highly disappointing culmination of the Peninsula Campaign, several newspapers proclaimed their relief that the Union army had hired former slaves to assist the Union war effort in Richmond while the battle-weary Army of the Potomac could enjoy some much-needed rest (Brasher 220). Furthermore, these slaves and former slaves were beneficial to the logistical movements of the army as they knew the local terrain and could both reconnoiter and lead Union forces through hostile territory.

Conversely, the loss of enslaved workers greatly harmed the Confederate economy and war effort. Indeed, from the start of the war, many enslaved black people were conscripted to build fortifications and dig trenches for the South. Brasher notes that, following McClellan’s defeat on the Peninsula, many Northerners observed that this enslaved labor allowed Confederates to get more rest and be more physically prepared to fight than their Union counterparts; indeed, after the failure of the campaign, many wondered if it could have had a successful outcome had Confederates not used slave labor to fortify and defend themselves (Brasher 227). In other words, emancipation increasingly became a strategic goal rather than simply a moral or political one.

The treatment of the enslaved by their owners also appalled soldiers. The Philadelphia Inquirer, which, by the desire of its owner William Harding, was as objective in its reporting of military action as possible (despite the paper standing behind the Union), reported that “The negro cabins without exception are more like smoke-houses in the inside… As to the furniture, an old table and a broken chair or two, with an old shelf and a shake-down to sleep on” (Brasher 104). Indeed, the terrible living conditions of slaves shocked soldiers who saw them personally during their service. Later on in the campaign, General McClellan established his headquarters on the plantation “White House” that belonged to Robert E. Lee’s son. The slave quarters on this plantation were especially repulsive; Oliver Wilcox Norton, a Pennsylvania soldier who would later lead a US Colored Troops regiment, wrote that they were little more than “log huts with no windows but holes in the walls and only a mud floor;” New York officer Richard Tylden Auchmuty described them as “a village of pigsties;” and US Signal Corps officer Luther C. Furst noted that “the more [he saw] of slavery, the more [he thought] it should be abolished” (Brasher 157-158).

As a result of these myriad direct encounters with the enslaved, Brasher writes, “despite the racist sentiments of northern soldiers” and the “frequently cruel treatment of African Americans behind the lines,” the connection between enslaved people and soldiers was, for the most part, “increasingly positive” (Brasher 161).

While Knowlton personally remained fairly silent regarding race in his later letters, it is possible, if not likely, that he may have experienced a mini “racial reckoning” somewhat similar to what the Union soldiers fighting on the Peninsula and around Richmond experienced. While his service brought Knowlton to the South at a slightly later point, scores of other northern soldiers from numerous Union armies reported similar changes in their attitudes toward slavery. Undoubtedly also witnessing, firsthand, the brutality and horrors of slavery, as well as the ways in which slavery benefitted the enemy’s war effort, Knowlton may very well have softened his views on the peculiar institution over time, though such cannot be confirmed in his letters.

It is interesting, however that near the end of his service, in letters to his parents in which he writes about demoralized Confederate soldiers deserting (“the Rebs loos about a Regament of men Every day by Deserting to us”) and a Prisoner of War exchange, he never once mentions any incidents of enslaved people fleeing their owners to follow or assist the Union forces (Feb 24, 1865 letter to Seneca and Polly Knowlton). Given how common this was, it is not likely that Knowlton lacked interactions with escaped slaves, raising the question of why he did not mention them in his letters. Perhaps he thought it was something that his parents would not find interesting, or perhaps it was something he simply did not want to address if his racial attitudes actually remained more rigid than some of his peers.

A final and related curiosity of Knowlton’s service that his letters also speak to is the question of what, besides personal honor and a sense of masculine or patriotic duty, might have sustained Knowlton throughout his nearly three years of service. Historian James McPherson discusses the differing motivations behind why soldiers fought. Soldiers had initial motivations for enlistment, motivations to remain enlisted (sustaining motivations), and motivations to fight (combat motivations). While, for many Northerners, the sentiment of fighting for Union was an strong motivator, it might not have been a sustaining motivation following the terrible conditions they endured within the war, which Knowlton bemoaned on more than one occasion. Indeed, by the end of the war, Knowlton wished to leave the army as soon as possible. A couple of months before his discharge in May 1865, Knowlton wrote to his parents that “[the government] can not hold me onely [sic] a little over 5 months longer then they Can do as they Pleas[sic] for all of me for all the money that I ever saw yet wood[sic] be no temptation for [me] to stay [enlisted] Enny[sic] longer” (March 8, 1865 letter to Seneca and Polly Knowlton). This sentiment occurs throughout Knowlton’s later letters. In another one, he writes to his parents that he “shall never be the man for hard work that [he] would have been if [he] had not ever come in the army” and that “it will take some time for [him] to git straitened out after [he] comes home” (Jan 25, 1865 letter to Seneca and Polly Knowlton). Even with Union victory on the clear horizon, Knowlton couldn’t help but elaborate, time and again, on how he could not wait to be permanently beyond the army’s ownership of his life and labor, while simultaneously lamenting the immense toll that soldiering had taken on his body and mind. 

Such thoughts were not uncommon for even the most patriotic or devoted of Civil War soldiers, as men continuously juggled myriad and often conflicting ideas about the war, ranging from idealistic, faith-infused notions of righteous conflict, to utter depression and war-weariness, to outright disgust for the atrocities and immoralities of soldiering. Nevertheless, they found ways to navigate the realities of waging daily war within the increasingly malleable boundaries of their political and ideological frameworks through what historian Peter Carmichael has referred to as a “pragmatic approach” to soldiering in the Civil War. Knowlton clearly fought similar internal battles to help him navigate his way through nearly three years of a war that taxed his mind, body, and psyche.

Ultimately, the letters of Private Eli Knowlton prove fascinating both for what they can tell us about the genuine, sometimes conflicting—and sometimes even evolving–worldviews of the common Civil War soldier, and for the questions they leave unanswered regarding the complexity of the front-line experiences and changing inner world of a common cavalryman. Far from the sentimental and romanticized stories of the saber-wielding horsemen thundering across open fields in heroic charges, Knowlton’s letters invite us into the ambivalent, camp-weary, unpolished world of the average cavalryman whose struggles to survive and derive meaning from his soldiering years are far more uncommon to find in the public’s beloved portrayals of the cavalry at war, but were indeed far more common and illustrative of the Civil War as its combatants lived and understood it.

Works Referenced

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Ancestry.com. “1860 United States Federal Census.” Accessed April 12, 2021. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/imageviewer/collections/7667/images/4236613_00287?pId=46799257

Brasher, Glenn David. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom. University of North Carolina Press, 2012. JSTOR.

Knowlton, Eli S. Letters of Eli Knowlton, Gettysburg College Special Collections.

Manning, Chandra. “What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War.” Civil War Book Review, 9, Issue 3 (Summer 2007): 1-13. https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2623&context=cwbr

McPherson, James M. What They Fought For: 1861-1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

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Williams, Edgar. “A History of The Inquirer.” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 2003. https://web.archive.org/web/20070219044935/http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/local/6135296.htm?1c

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