The mustering of troops in Virginia… revisiting enlistments in the militia

Posted on May 18, 2011 by


It’s the middle of May 1861… and Virginians are flocking to units across the state…

In some areas of Virginia, the mustering of troops for Virginia units (ultimately assigned to the cause of the Confederacy) began as early as the day the news of secession hit the streets. No doubt, some were quite eager to rush to the ranks, being inspired by a number of things, ranging from the sectional discontent that had been building over a number of years, to the more basic interests of simply defending against the idea that Union troops would soon be in the state to put down the rebellion/revolution. But, take care in the overall assessment. Just how eager was the Southern population, from the get-go? For those who think that ALL embraced secession and the idea of a Southern Confederacy, spend some “time in the trenches” with the massive amount of records available. For starters, I’d suggest taking a look at all those who enlisted in the first wave, and compare that number with all who were physically eligible for enlistment. In fact, I’d offer that a careful analysis of different enlistment records for units, weighed against the county’s 1860 census schedules would reveal that the majority of eligible males opted not to join, at least, not at that time.

In the meantime, what about the men of the militia? We’ve seen that they were quickly used as a ready body of men in the taking of Harper’s Ferry, and Gosport Navy Yard, but, we need to remain conscious that the militia was a pre-war volunteer force, NOT a post-secession volunteer force. We have evidence of a split in opinion among the militiamen, as to what Virginia should do after the convention voted in favor of secession… in posts such as these, here and here.

I touched on Virginia’s militia in a post about two years ago, and I’m going to revisit that discussion, with a few minor tweaks.

The focus of my militia studies (which was part of my thesis from 2007) was on the Ninety-seventh Virginia Militia, from the central Shenandoah Valley. Most of the companies were from Page County – my home county – thus my interest in examining this unit in particular.

In all, 550 men filled the ranks of five companies of the local Ninety-seventh Virginia Militia, making up sixty-three percent of those from Page County enrolled in the Confederate service by July 1861. A number of recollections reveal that many of those who were enrolled after July 13, 1861, were drafted into the service, though it would be nine months before the Confederate Congress passed the first Conscription Act, in April 1862.

William S. Yates was one of those who used the word “drafted” in reference to his militia service, years after the war, having been “drafted in September 1861.” Despite being a draftee, Yates was still listed on duty as of December 31, 1861; the exceptional nature of his record being that only a third of the men in the Ninety-seventh Virginia Militia could boast of such a record of uninterrupted service, and many of them were either commissioned or noncommissioned officers.

Another Page County militiaman, Henry “Hiram” Meadows, was, according to his military pension as a Union soldier, drafted into the Ninety-seventh Militia shortly before the First Battle of Manassas. His older brother, William T. Meadows, had been drafted into the same regiment just weeks before. Their reluctance to serve in Confederate military in any capacity is evident in their records, for, within three months, both brothers were listed as absent without leave and were still absent when the last complete muster roll was filled out for the regiment on December 31, 1861. It is unclear if other family members went with him, but Henry left Page County sometime in late 1861 or early 1862 and headed for Pennsylvania to avoid further service.

Evidence of involuntary service with the militia can also be found in a number of Southern Loyalist Claims. In fact, a few men who were involuntarily enrolled in the militia came under scrutiny when they submitted their applications. Morgan Price had been enrolled with the Ninety-seventh Virginia Militia on July 5, 1861, but by November 9, he was listed as absent without leave. When Federal troops occupied Luray in July 1862, he was taken to Front Royal where he “insisted on taking the oath of allegiance.” After Union General Franz Sigel’s command left Luray, some of his soldiers were left behind sick or were stragglers. Price took many of these into his home, fed them and “piloted them through the mountains” through Confederate lines and to safety. Nevertheless, partly because of his service in the Ninety-seventh, Price’s Southern Loyalist claim was disallowed.

Claimant Martin Ellis’s son, John, was drafted into the militia on July 5, 1861, and bore the rank of second corporal. Nevertheless, Martin Ellis was able to get his son home for a while before Confederate conscript details came and took him away again. When Martin Ellis was able to get him away from the militia a second time, he “kept him hid until the war broke.” Ellis commented that his other son was in a “detail shop to keep out of the army.” Ellis not only worked to keep his sons at home, but was ready to provide safe haven for whoever else deserted from the army. James H. Miller gave testimony in support of Ellis’ claim, and was one of those who volunteered for the Confederate army when the Page Grays of Company H, Thirty-third Virginia Infantry (Stonewall Brigade) was being organized on June 1, 1861. Having changed his mind about serving the Confederacy, Miller deserted on March 14, 1862, while near Winchester. Recognizing Ellis as a Union man, Miller “went to him for protection and assistance and he kept me at his home concealed at different times; during a term of twelve months I stayed with him all about three weeks total.” After tiring of evading the conscript hunters, Miller left the county in 1863 and went west and eventually, as veterans of the Page Grays recalled, “went across lines.”

One of the most striking accounts of a militiaman turned “reluctant volunteer” was that of James Robert Modesitt. A lieutenant with the Ninety-seventh Virginia Militia, Modesitt left a record of his reluctance in the form of a number of letters to his wife. Modesitt, though a militia officer, served only briefly in that capacity before being assigned to duty as a lead teamster. He remained in that role until the spring of 1863, when he enlisted in Company D of the Seventh Virginia Cavalry. In the letters to his wife, Modesitt mentions nothing of glory or anything that would allude to any feelings of patriotism for the Confederate cause. Rather, he takes a more conservative, if not cautious, outlook on his participation in the war, leaving the impression that he remained on duty as a teamster more as matter-of-fact circumstance than as a duty. While he mentions an interest in enlisting in the Seventh Virginia, he expresses an even stronger desire in remaining out of the war altogether. On two occasions he made statements that he would gladly pay his way out of service if he had the opportunity. Following the 1862 Maryland Campaign, Modesitt began to show concern about the Confederacy drafting all “able-bodied men” from the teamsters and putting them into regiments. He wrote to his wife that he would “give all that the Confederacy is due me of which is nearly $800, if that would clear me from the war.” Four months later, he commented that he would be glad to pay $1,000 “to get out for good, but the way things are working there is danger of losing my money and then I have to come back myself.” In both instances, Modesitt warned his wife not to share with anyone what he had said.

Modesitt’s interest in enlisting in the Seventh Virginia Cavalry was likely more out of self-preservation, considering the low casualty rate of the regiment in comparison with infantry units formed from the same region. Likewise, Modesitt probably hoped that, as the regiment had spent much of 1862 operating in the county, would remain in the area, giving him an opportunity to be closer to his wife and family. He knew that he was age-eligible under the conscription laws and, if he did not volunteer for the branch and unit of his preference, he would likely be conscripted into another branch or unit in which he knew nobody and had no interest in serving. Despite his hopes, after enlisting in the regiment, it spent more time on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge. Within five months of having enlisted, Modesitt was killed in action at Brandy Station, Virginia, on October 11, 1863; one of only a few who were killed in the company. If Modesitt’s military record were taken at face value, without the benefit of seeing the letters to his wife, many new-era Confederate remembrance folks might jump too quickly at labeling Modesitt a “patriotic Confederate” who made the ultimate sacrifice defending his “Southern rights.” In truth, however, Modesitt was a reluctant rebel, seeking nothing more but the best way to survive the war and see to the welfare of his family.

As further indication of the absence of loyalty and lack of interest in the Confederate cause among the county’s militiamen, following disbandment of the militia a large number men did anything they could remain out of active service with the regular Confederate army. Likewise, despite the order issued by Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson, calling upon all disbanded militiamen to enlist in regular army units, less than seventeen percent of the nearly 550 Page County militiamen actually answered Jackson’s call.

In April 1862, just three months after the Ninety-seventh Virginia was disbanded, the first Confederate Conscript Act was passed, and with it came an entirely new threat to those reluctant to go to war. In addition to intimidation and violence at the hands of local secessionists, those who had not bought into the Confederate cause now had to be concerned with Confederate conscript patrols. Not only did conscription hunters look for deserters from the Confederate army, but they also actively sought out those eligible for the Confederate service. The conscript hunters soon became a recognized enemy to many in Page County… and, I have no doubt, also in counties across Virginia, and the South.

As we reflect on the South and Southerners of 150 years ago, these are some of the things we need to remain mindful of… it wasn’t so simple, and we need not misrepresent the time or the people.