Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

The usual dangers of crowded encampments

July 9, 2011

The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

From Frederick L. Olmstead to Preston King, July 9, 1862

Office of the Sanitary Commission,

Army of the Potomac, Berkely,

James River, July 9th 1862.

My Dear Sir,

As one of your constituents, observing this army from a peculiar point of view, may I tell you what I think of the duty of government to it?

If it remains here, the usual dangers of crowded encampments in a hot and malarious climate being aggravated by dissapointment, idleness and home-sickness from hope of home hopelessly deferred, it will loose half its value. And its value as an army, culled by hardship and disease, of its maker constituents, and disciplined and trained by three months’ advance in the face of a strong, vigilant, watchful wiley and vindictive enemy, is at the present market price of soldiers fully equal to its enormous cost. By one means or another government must save and use it. To this end the Army of the Potomac should be withdrawn, at once, entirely from James river or it should be so rapidly and constantly strengthened that the men will have the utmost confidence that within a month at furthest, they will able to advance on Richmond with certainty of success.1 For this purpose 50.000 men in regiments already disciplined should be transferred here from localities where they can be which can be abandoned, where they can be dispensed with, or where raw regiments will be able to safely supply their place, and thirty thousand men should be added to the regiments already here and greatly reduced in number force by losses in battle.

The latter should be carefully inspected sturdy re conscripts.

Conscription would greatly hasten volunteering.2 It would force a large class of men to serve the country in the only way they can be effectually made to do so. It would not withdraw men from their usual pursuits who are of more value to the community in those pursuits than they would be in the ranks, because the measure of their value is their earnings and these must be sufficient to enable them to enter successfully into competition with government in offerring premiums for volunteers — as substitutes.

Thirty thousand fresh men, each placed between two veteran volunteers, three weeks hence, would add greatly to its strength and diminish but imperceptibly its mobility and efficiency. They would be welcomed by the old volunteers because they would bring to each regiment so much relief from in guard and fatigue duties.

The cheif objection to conscription will be the supposed appearance of weakness which it will exhibit to foreign powers. Does not hesitation to adopt conscription at a crisis like this, illustrate and demonstrate an essential weakness in our form of government for purposes of war, which already is overestimated, and much to our damage and danger abroad?

Will it be wholly unpopular? It will convince the people that their government is in downright earnest in its purpose to overcome the rebellion whatever it costs, and that it realizes the fact — spite of the vain-glorious boastings of its newspapers, its orators and its generals — that this is not to be accomplished by ordinary small politicians’ small politics, nor without a sacrifice which every citizen, patriotic or otherwise must have a part in. Whatever does this, in my judgment, will be popular.

Yours most respectfully,

Fred. Law Olmsted.

[Note 1 The Army of the Potomac was withdrawn from its James River encampments early in August to reinforce John Pope for the ongoing Second Bull Run campaign.]

[Note 2 Congress did not pass the Enrollment Act, establishing a draft, until March 3, 1863.]

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