volunteers vs. regulars -- 7/25/22

Today's selection -- from A Wicked War by Amy S. Greenberg. In the Mexican-American War, volunteers for service in the military were esteemed much more highly than regular army soldiers:
"As the summer turned to fall, American newspaper readers might have noticed a subtle shift in war news. After the initial euphoria of America's stunning victories dissipated, the nearly universal response in favor of the war began to fray. In late May, the Philadelphia North American, a staunch Whig paper, had cheered that 'all party distinctions' had been 'lost-all hearts heated and fused into one fiery mass against the foes of the country.' 

"But news of mounting casualties led many in the United States to ask why the war had not yet been brought to a conclusion. Because the army did not censor the letters of soldiers, both volunteers and regulars wrote home with vivid reports of overcrowded, unsanitary camps and outbreaks of commu­nicable diseases in the regiments. Many of these were published by their families in local paper's. One October 1846 letter from Monterrey, published in the New Orleans Picayune, admitted that 'the health of the army is bad, a very heavy proportion of the officers and men being on the sick list .... Our sufferings are intolerable.' A correspondent to the New Orleans Times noted in November that 'disease was very common with the officers and the men' stationed along the Rio Grande. Volunteers, particularly from the countryside, lacked the previous exposure to communicable diseases that might have provided some immunity, and as a result they suffered from this disease at a higher rate than did the regulars. Unused to standards of camp sanitation, and more liable to undercook their rations or overindulge on the novel tropical fruits they encountered, they were also more prone to illness caused by tainted water and poor diet.  

U.S. Army full dress and campaign uniforms, 1835–1851.

"The women of Baltimore formed a benevolent organization 'to assist the poor sick and wounded soldiers' with donations of preserved food, and jour­nalists made similar appeals to the 'patriotism' of women in other towns, but the bad news kept coming. When a shipload of sick and injured soldiers arrived in Louisiana, a journalist marveled that half of the passengers 'were wounded or sick, some having lost their legs, others their arms, and others being wounded in their arms and legs .... Will you believe me when I tell you that with all these sick and wounded and dying men, not a surgeon or nurse was sent along to attend upon them, not a particle of medicine fur­nished, not a patch of linen for dressing wounds.' David Davis wrote to a Massachusetts friend that the Illinois volunteers 'have been treated worse than dogs & one half either die, or return home, emaciated & with constitu­tions wholly broken down.'

"The public evinced quite a bit more concern about the volunteers than the regulars. Although serving in the same army, they were dramatically different groups, and were perceived that way at the time. More than twice as many volunteers as regulars served in Mexico, 59,000 versus 27,000. The vast majority of enlisted men in the peacetime regular army were poor, uneducated, and unskilled. Forty percent were recently arrived immigrants (many not yet naturalized), and 35 percent could not sign their name. Their average age was twenty-five. Service in the army was neither particularly remunerative nor honorable; in a democratic culture that upheld freedom and independence as precious American rights, soldiers were considered overly servile. They were subjected to harsh corporal punishment, includ­ing whipping, and forced to labor under conditions they considered degrad­ing, often alongside slaves. Most men who enlisted in the regular army did so because they had no better options in the sluggish and unpredict­able economy in the decade following the Panic of 1837.  Even those poorly paid jobs open to unskilled laborers, such as digging ditches and canals or hauling coal, were hard to come by. Not surprisingly, many of these men deserted when the opportunity presented itself. 

"Volunteers, by contrast, tended to come from the middle and upper echelons of society. Their ideas about discipline were decidedly more lax than those of the regular army, and they insisted upon being treated with respect, like citizens. They demanded (but were not legally entitled to) the right to withdraw from service when they chose.

"There was no love lost between the two groups. Volunteers looked down upon the regulars and often failed to conceal their contempt. Their disdain was not simply grounded in a conviction of their social superiority. Like most Americans, the volunteers questioned whether a democratic republic like the United States had any need for a standing army, and doubted that men serving for wages could be relied upon in a fight. Both beliefs had long histories. Soon after the Revolution, Congress declared that peacetime standing armies were 'inconsistent with the principles of republican gov­ernment' and 'dangerous to the liberties of a free people.' since they could easily be 'converted into destructive engines for establishing despotism.' As for paying men to fight, this too seemed suspicious to Americans. In the 1840s Americans still venerated the volunteer ethos as particularly admirable and trustworthy, while professionalization would not take on the positive attri­butes of skill and expertise until after the Civil War. One could practice as a doctor or lawyer in the 1840s without a great deal of training or any formal certification, and all firefighting was conducted by volunteers, even in large cities. Americans were hesitant to employ paid firemen because they ques­tioned whether men motivated by financial interests would be willing to risk their lives at a fire. Paying soldiers seemed equally problematic.

"The regulars, by contrast, found preposterous the idea that volunteers could defend the United States, let alone conduct an offensive war like that in Mexico. They resented their extra rights and privileges, as well as the fact that volunteers won a disproportionate amount of praise for victories that by rights belonged to the regulars. Zachary Taylor, who found the vol­unteers impossible to control, believed them more trouble than they were worth. Perhaps he was right. Volunteers, lacking both training and disci­pline, were not only less reliable under fire than the regulars, and dispropor­tionately susceptible to communicable disease, in part because of their poor sanitation practices, but also committed atrocities against Mexican civilians that would come to shock Americans back home." 

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Amy S. Greenberg


A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico


Vintage Books, a division of Random House


Copyright 2012 by Amy Greenberg


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