The Iredell County Public Library Local History Department recently added two reels of microfilm of World War I draft registration cards covering Iredell County soldiers. These cards provide valuable and interesting information for military and genealogical researchers.
Another book we recently purchased covers the subject of the draft during the Civil War. “They Went Into the Fight Cheering: Confederate Conscription in North Carolina” by Walter C. Hilderman, III examines the role that drafting or conscripting soldiers played during the Civil War.
Hilderman is a long time Civil War reenactor who retired from the Charlotte police department after 30 years of service. He now lives near Eutaw Springs, South Carolina where he continues to reenact and write about Confederate history and heritage.
In his book Hilderman looks at the history of conscription, how it evolved in North Carolina, and the effects it had on the Civil War and the soldiers who served in it. The book gives a factual and well documented history of how North Carolina and its citizenry dealt with the effects of compulsory military service.
Hilderman points out that America’s first nationwide compulsory military service law was enacted by the Confederacy in 1862. The North soon followed suit and conscription service laws were hated both in the South and the North. In the South conscription caused intense political and social conflict, while in the North it led to the New York draft riots.
The author looks at why both sides felt conscription was a necessary evil that had to be endured in order to fight the war and how it affected the war’s course. What makes this book particularly a good read is the large number of letters the author draws upon to give the soldier’s perspective during the war.
The words of these brave men show the emotional turmoil they endured as they faced the choice of either serving the newly formed Confederacy or staying behind to protect their families and homes. Iredell County is mentioned several times in the book.
Some might wonder if being a conscript somehow made you less brave than the volunteer or that it demonstrated that men in the war were often fighting for causes they did not believe in. If so then it was equally as true in the North as the South. Hilderman’s book shows that these were for the most part all brave men of strong beliefs. It also reminds one to be careful when making judgments about the actions of men from the past.
We have several sources here at the library for looking up information about soldiers who served in North Carolina in the Civil War. Often in these records you will find it stated that the soldier “deserted” or “did not report” or was “missing.”
I have seen a few faces fall at seeing these words along with someone’s ancestor’s name. Remember though that toward the end of the war many Southern regiments were decimated and falling apart. Men were leaving during the final days of the war even as their officers continued to call roll.
Often soldiers left to go back and take care of family. Many men were shot as deserters for doing so. I read a document in Caldwell County where a veteran of the war talked about men running during battle and named a few of them. A descendant today of those men would be wise not to judge them unfairly. A lot of men ran. There were times when it was the smart thing to do.
In the movie version of Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage” the central character is played by Audie Murphy, one of America’s greatest hero’s in World War II. In the story during his first battle he turns and runs away. Later he joins another unit and in his next battle leads all the men in the fighting.
Many people assume that it is the story of the making of a Civil War hero. A teacher I had in college saw it differently. He felt that instead of casting Audie Murphy they should have used Don Knotts. On the Andy Griffith show Barney would often turn to run when confronted with danger only to later return to face to it out of shame, guilt, and a sense of duty.
So it must have been for a lot of boys from both the South and the North who went to war either as volunteers or conscripts. These were young boys who had hardly ever been off the farm fighting homesickness. Young Christian boys marching with guns in their hands who had been raised to believe that killing was wrong. Boys who often really did love their parents, wives, and children more than the cause they were fighting for.
Still, once they were in the army either as a volunteer or a conscript most of them did go “Into the Front Cheering.” Once they were in, they marched and did their duty as best they knew how moving as part of a great war machine while trying to remain true to their own beliefs and conscience.
After reading “They Went into the Front Cheering!” one comes away with no doubt as to the bravery of the men from North Carolina who fought during the war. Walter Carrington Hilderman’s book is well footnoted and has an excellent bibliography allowing both those who support his arguments and oppose them to study his resources and write their own arguments and conclusions.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “New book purchase highlights Civil War vets” on May 3, 2006