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:

Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

Ancestry.com. New York, U.S., Grand Army of the Republic Records, 1866-1931 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.

https://civilwarintheeast.com/us-regiments-batteries/new-york-regiments-and-batteries/cavalry/3rd-new-york-cavalry/

http://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/cavalry/3rdCav/3rdCavMain.htm

https://www.niche.com/places-to-live/clarkson-monroe-ny/

https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1860?amount=1960

The Eli S. Knowlton letters

Titans for a Battlefield: Horatio Ames and his Colossal Cannon

By: Abigail Adam

One of the most awe-inducing and terrifying components of Civil War combat was artillery fire. The haze of cannon smoke, the sudden blasts, and the weapon’s raw capacity for destruction have captured the minds of artists, filmmakers, and reenactors for decades. Cannons were sources of brutal, unbridled battle strength. Solid shots crippled enemy guns and wagons. Explosive shells blasted agonizing shrapnel into enemy soldiers. One innovative ironmaster was particularly fascinated by cannons. However, the typical 4,000-pound cannon and 10-pound shot did not satisfy Mr. Horatio Ames. He pushed his ironworks to be bigger and bolder than ever before, ultimately producing a massive 19,500-pound cannon that could fire 125-pound shells over five miles. Though the Union won the Civil War before the government purchased his cannon, Ames’s devotion to the project demonstrated the war-induced fervor for creative and unprecedented advances in munitions; manufacturers’ firm beliefs in their ability to ensure Union victory; and businessmen’s ambitious eye for personal profiteering off patriotic enterprise.

Horatio Ames was born in 1805 to Oliver and Susanna Ames. Oliver owned a shovel-manufacturing business in North Easton, Massachusetts. Between the century’s ongoing railroad construction and the California Gold Rush, the business was highly fruitful. In 1834, Horatio built his own furnace in nearby Salisbury, Connecticut, with fellow investors, John Edd and Leonard Kinsley. Ames’s co-investors withdrew over time, and the ironmaster found himself to be the proprietor of the newly renamed Ames Iron Works. Ames was an imposing figure, standing at six feet and six inches tall and weighing approximately 300 pounds. He had an unbridled passion for his work, often engaging in physical labor alongside his men while dressed in his signature black coat and top hat. His respect for blue-collar work was likely engrained throughout his youth. When Horatio turned eleven, his father employed him as a factory worker. With time, he was promoted to the rank of salesman. It is unclear why the wealthy Oliver Ames would choose such an unconventional path for his son. Perhaps he thought that physical labor would instill a good work ethic and valuable real-world experience. At any rate, Horatio rarely balked at performing manual labor. Ames Iron Works specialized in the production of train wheels. It also manufactured crowbars, railroad axles, wagon axles, railroad car wheels, and iron crankshafts. By 1850, the ironworks boasted over two hundred employees and one of the largest steam hammers in the United States. Over time, the complex grew so large that it became known as Amesville. Though Ames generated products as the market demanded, his true passion was innovation. He was a dreamer with a creative mind, a true human product of the Industrial Revolution. The outbreak of the Civil War provided Ames with precisely the opportunity he craved.

Ames Iron Works, year unknown. This photograph was taken from the Falls Village side of the Housatonic River. The complex lies on the river’s Salisbury side.

Once the war broke out, Ames wasted no time in switching his efforts over to cannon manufacturing. The company produced and sold artillery that shot fifty-pound balls, which was considerably larger than the average ten-pound ball. Nonetheless, Ames was not satisfied. As soon as 1861, he started to lay out plans to produce massive wrought iron cannons. The company’s steam hammer, puddling works, and labor force of several hundred men would allow such a bold, expensive, and risky idea to become reality. In 1863, confident that his prowess in munitions manufacturing would be intrinsically important to battlefield victories, Ames personally petitioned Abraham Lincoln for an official government commission.  His bold request to the president was likely inspired by his older brother’s increasing participation in national politics, as Oakes Ames was elected Congressman of Massachusetts’ 2nd District in 1862. The Ames family also donated considerably to Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. The family secured another anchor in national politics via the Pacific Railroad Act, which the President signed in 1862. The Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad had difficulties attracting investors. Members of the Ames family invested nonetheless, making the clan one of three major investment groups. In light of these three connections, Horatio Ames was well-equipped to contact the president directly. After Horatio penned a proposal, Lincoln responded on September 28, 1863. As the president wrote,

“If you will, on or before the first day of March, 1864, within the state of Connecticut, or at any point nearer this city, produce guns, each of a capacity to carry a missile of at least 100 pounds weight, and notify me thereof, I will cause some person or persons to examine and test said guns; and if, upon such examinations and test, it shall be in the opinion of such person or persons, that said guns, are or any of them, are on the whole better guns, than any of like caliber heretofore, or now in use in the United States, I will on the account of the United States, accept said guns … it being understood that I have no public money at my control, with which I could make such payment absolutely.”[1]

Lincoln agreed that he would try to purchase the cannons if his conditions were met. However, he never made a definitive promise. Nevertheless, Ames plunged into the project head-first. Before March 1864, the ironmaster successfully produced a multitude of his 19,500-pound cannons. He and several Washington officials tested them in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The first test used a 120-pound shot, which was 20 pounds above the minimum. Clearly, Ames was confident in his product. Packed with 25 pounds of gunpowder, the cannon fired with a colossal boom. The shot remained in the air for 39 seconds and travelled 5.43 miles, just shy of the 5.5-mile requirement. Ames did not give up. He instructed for the next cannon to be packed with an additional 5 pounds of powder. The final shot flew over 6 miles, far surpassing the minimum requirement.  Cheering and celebration followed. It appeared that the ironmaster’s hard work had paid off.

Horatio Ames (second to the left) and his 19,500-pound cannon. He stands in his signature top hat and coat.

Unfortunately, Ames learned that a promise to try is not a promise to succeed. The tests in Bridgeport were some of the few times the cannon was actually used, as securing funding for its purchase was easier said than done. Not all within the government agreed that the guns were a worthy investment. After all, they were unlike any battlefield equipment previously used by the Union Army. They were strikingly heavy, bulky, and never-before tested within a battlefield setting. Government officials were so divided over whether or not to purchase the guns that by the time a resolution was reached, the Civil War had ended. Additionally, the ambitious project had required Ames to borrow a significant amount of money. As the cannons’ purchase was continually delayed, his debts grew more and more pressing. Eventually, Horatio had no choice but to sell Ames Iron Works to his brother, Oliver. Thus, once the government eventually paid $215,000 for 13 of Horatio’s cannons, the money was directed to the new ironmaster. Sadly, Horatio Ames was never able to enjoy the fruits of his ambition.

            It is impossible to know how Ames’s cannons would have impacted the Civil War if they were used during the conflict. Perhaps the 125-pound shells would have devastated Confederate lines in key engagements. On the other hand, the 19,500-pound cannons could have simply been too cumbersome for effective use. After all, they were a far cry from typical Napoleon or parrot guns, which hovered around 1,000 pounds. And of course, Ames’s cannons would have weighed even more once they were hooked up to their limber and caisson. While hefty, these additions were essential as they made cannons mobile and added storage for powder and ammunition. Furthermore, the average cannon shot weighed around 10 pounds. It was far easier to move multiple of these lighter shots than even just one of Ames’s 125-pound shots. Lastly, moving a typical gun required a minimum of twelve horses. One team of six horses would pull the cannon itself while the others would pull the caisson. If these horses pulled approximately 1,000 pounds per team, then individual horses pulled around 167 pounds each. With this in mind, an astonishing estimated 1,168 horses would be needed to adequately pull just one of Ames’s cannons. Unless the guns travelled via train or ship, it is hard to imagine how they would have been feasible for battlefield use. On the other hand, they might have been valuable for anchored, strategic positions in forts or along coastal fortifications. Perhaps it was this uncertainty over the cannons’ actual usefulness that lay at the root of the initial conflict over their purchase; while Lincoln clearly believed in their utility, other officials were not as sure.

            Horatio Ames ultimately died in 1871, less than a decade after the Civil War ended. His physical health likely suffered from the mental anguish caused by his debt, his fall from the company, and witnessing Oliver reap the benefits of his own hard physical and financial labor. In the words of historian Ed Kirby, “Horatio died a broken man.”[2] Though Ames’s risky wager ultimately caused him financial ruin, the undertaking of such a project demonstrated his innovation, determination, work ethic, and foresight into how patriotic purpose, combined with industrial production, could potentially lead to great personal fortune. Not only did he succeed in garnering Abraham Lincoln’s support, but he also made several capable guns that fit the president’s needs. Ultimately, historians can only speculate on how Ames’s cannons may have actually impacted the war’s length and outcome. However, it is the fascinating backstory of these uniquely colossal cannons’ creation and the mastermind behind them that sheds the greatest light on their ultimate significance both in Horatio Ames’s personal civil war, and within our national history.


[1] Abraham Lincoln to Horatio Ames, September 28, 1863, in The Making of the Iron Industrial Age (Sharon: Sharon Historical Society, 2019), 86.

[2] Ed Kirby, The Making of the Iron Industrial Age (Sharon: Sharon Historical Society, 2019), 198.

Sources:

Gordon, Robert and Michael Raber. Industrial Heritage in Northwest Connecticut: A Guide to History and Archaeology. New Haven: The Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2000.

Kirby, Ed. Echoes of Iron: In Connecticut’s Northwest Corner. Sharon: Sharon Historical Society, 1998.

Kirby, Ed. The Making of the Iron Industrial Age: An Historical Chronology: The Iron Men and Women of the Sharon Industrial Age, the Salisbury Iron District and Their Connections to the Transcontinental Railroad. Sharon: Sharon Historical Society, 2019.

Newell, Clayton R. and Charles R. Shrader, “The Artillery,” in Of Duty Well and Faithfully Done: A History of the Regular Army in the Civil War, 265-283. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1df4h5t.20 JSTOR.

Pool, J. Lawrence. America’s Valley Forges and Valley Furnaces, edited by Angeline J. Pool. Dalton: The Studley Press Inc., 1982.

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/10-facts-civil-war-artillery

https://www.civilwarencyclopedia.org/abolition-ameatk

A New York Cavalryman’s Civil War: The Letters of Private Eli S. Knowlton, Company M. 3rd New York Cavalry

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.

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?

The 3rd New York Cavalry’s standard.

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:

Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

Ancestry.com. New York, U.S., Grand Army of the Republic Records, 1866-1931 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.

https://civilwarintheeast.com/us-regiments-batteries/new-york-regiments-and-batteries/cavalry/3rd-new-york-cavalry/

http://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/cavalry/3rdCav/3rdCavMain.htm

https://www.niche.com/places-to-live/clarkson-monroe-ny/

https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1860?amount=1960

The Eli S. Knowlton letters