A Regiment of Immigrants and Americans
The 7th US Infantry Regiment is a unit with a long history dating back to the War of 1812, and perhaps 1798. It fought at Tippecanoe and Fort Harrison, as well as New Orleans under Jackson. It saw action through the Seminole Wars in Florida and then Mexico, where it attained a reputation as fine assault troops. After 1848 the regiment found itself on relatively peaceful frontier duty in Oklahoma.
A Regiment of Immigrants and Americans
As an example of regular army soldiers on the eve of the Civil War, the men of the 7th US Regiment lived for a long time on the frontiers, at the margins of American society. One could describe them as outsiders – rootless, transient and forgotten men with little education carrying out a lousy job that no one else wanted. Their backgrounds were what most “respectable” Americans would consider as beneath contempt with most unable to read or write.
Most Americans at the time still viewed professional soldiers with suspicion, believing them incapable of holding an honest job who left a normal life to live off the government. By 1860, the regular army’s ranks were completely dominated by foreigners, with three-quarters of those enlisting between 1849 and 1860 being impoverished Irish and German immigrants. After Lincoln’s call for troops in April 1861 these immigrants who had no patriotic ties to the South for the most part remained in blue uniforms.
But many regular army soldiers deserted at the first opportunity to assume new identities and join state volunteer regiments. They were after the substantial federal, state and local enlistment bonuses, pensions, and sometimes land. Regular army officers too sought commissions in state “volunteer” regiments for higher rank and greater prestige.
At the battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, the 7th Infantry was besieged by a strong Southern force and its color-bearer shot down with the regimental flag. Immediately Corporal Stephen Neil grabbed the flag standard and proudly waved it, earning him the Congressional Medal of Honor. No disrespect for Neil’s bravery, but standards for the awarding of this supreme honor were much lower in the nineteenth century. This is probably explained by the great need for veteran reenlistments as the initial three-year terms began expiring in mid-1863, and Lincoln offered attractive bounties and medals to units remaining in blue.
The 7th Infantry participated at the Gettysburg standoff and remained in trenches as Lee’s still-formidable force marched away. The regiment was then sent to New York City in mid-August 1863 to join other blue units forestalling further riots against Lincoln’s draft in the heavily Democratic state.
October 1864 found the regiment still in New York City as a bulwark against more anti-Lincoln rioting though they were needed by Grant in his siege of Petersburg. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, intensely worried about the potentially explosive situation in New York in the days leading up to the presidential election of 1864, persuaded Grant to leave the 7th Regiment in New York to patrol voting polls and discourage anyone from voting Democratic. After the war assistant secretary of war Charles A. Dana admitted that the entire force of the War Department was used to facilitate Lincoln’s reelection.
Desertion plagued units like the 7th near major metropolitan areas like New York as men could simply disappear from camp at night, don civilian clothes, melt into the population and move on to points unknown with another name.
Postwar the 7th ended up on the Indian frontier with its composition changing little – half of its men were emigrants from England, Germany and Ireland. The foreign born joined for the usual reasons of limited economic and social opportunities, and the native-born were usually farm boys and small-town kids seeking adventure and excitement in the over-publicized West. Its officers were nearly all Civil War veterans with a few green, West Point second lieutenants sprinkled in.
(American Courage, American Carnage: 7th Infantry Chronicles. John C. McManus, Tom Doherty Associates, 2009, pp. 121-123; 150-171)