Contempt for Bounty Men of 1863 and 1864

March 21, 1864/2014
Volume 5, Issue 12 (180 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

March 26, 1864. Frank Wilkeson was determined to not miss out on the action in the war. The youngest male in his extended family, he ran away from home and on March 26, 1864, claiming he was eighteen years old, enlisted in the 11th Battery of New York Light Artillery. He was sent to northern Virginia and took part in some of the bloodiest battles in the Overland Campaign of 1864. Historian James M. McPherson calls Frank Wilkeson’s memoir Turned Inside Out, Recollections of a Private in the Army of the Potomac, “among the earliest and best” descriptions of the war told “from the perspective of the ‘grunts’ who did most of the fighting and dying.” The title, McPherson explains in his introduction to the book, refers to “one of the most graphic images in the book: the pockets of dead soldiers turned inside out by battlefield ghouls who robbed the dead. . . . [Wilkeson’s] narrative is starkly realistic, almost naturalistic in its portrayal of the repulsive, gruesome scenes of death, pain, suffering, filth, stupidity, cruelty, and cowardice, as well as the nobler traits of courage and dedication.”

McPherson observes, “The veterans of 1861 and 1862 universally expressed contempt for the conscripts, substitutes, and bounty men of 1863 and 1864,” the people with whom Wilkeson was sent to war. The first chapter of Wilkeson’s memoir makes it clear why. It reads in part:

. . .The war fever seized me in 1863. All the summer and fall I had fretted and burned to be off. That winter, and before I was sixteen years old, I ran away from my father’s high-lying Hudson River valley farm. I went to Albany and [on March 26, 1864] enlisted in the Eleventh New York Battery, [which was] then at the front in Virginia, and was promptly sent out to the penitentiary building. There, to my utter astonishment, I found eight hundred or one thousand ruffians, closely guarded by heavy lines of sentinels, who paced to and fro, day and night, to keep them from running away. When I entered the barracks these recruits gathered around me and asked, ‘How much bounty did you get?’ ‘How many times have you jumped the bounty?’ I answered that I had not bargained for any bounty, that I had never jumped a bounty, and that I had enlisted to go to the front and fight. I was instantly assailed with abuse. Irreclaimable blackguards, thieves, and ruffians gathered in a boisterous circle around me and called me foul names. I was robbed while in these barracks of all I possessed — a pipe, a piece of tobacco and a knife. . . . A recruit’s social standing in the barracks was determined by the acts of villany he had performed, supplemented by the number of times he had jumped the bounty. The social standing of a hard-faced, crafty pickpocket, who had jumped the bounty in say half a dozen cities, was assured. He shamelessly boasted of his rascally agility. Less active bounty-jumpers looked up to him as to a leader. He commanded their profound respect. . . .

. . . We started to march into Albany, guarded by a double line of sentinels. Long before we arrived at State Street three recruits attempted to escape. They dropped their knapsacks and fled wildly. Crack! crack! crack! a dozen rifles rang out, and what had been three men swiftly running were three bloody corpses. . . . Previous to my enlistment I had imagined that the population of Albany would line the sidewalks to see the defenders of the nation march proudly by, bound for the front, and that we would be cheered, and would unbend sufficiently to accept floral offerings from beautiful maidens. How was it? No exultant cheers arose from the column. The people who saw us did not cheer. The faces of the recruits plainly expressed the profound disgust they felt at the disastrous outcome of what had promised to be a remunerative financial enterprise. Small boys derided us/ Mud balls were thrown at us. One small lad, who was greatly excited by the unwonted spectacle, . . .yelled to a distant and loved comrade: “Hi, Johnnie, come see de bounty-jumpers!. . .

[On the steamboat to New York City,] I sat down on my knapsack in a corner and wondered musingly if I were a patriot or simply a young fool.

Morning came, and we disembarked in New York, and were marched, still heavily guarded, to the low, white barracks. . . . Many of them had previously jumped bounties in New York. They knew the slums of the city. They knew where to hide in safety. Dozens of them said that if they could get out of the barracks they would be safe. But they could not get out. They were going to the front. . . .[W]e were escorted by a heavy double line of guards down Broadway to the Battery. There we turned to march along a street that led to a dock where an ocean steamer lay. The head of the column was opposite the dock, when four recruits shed their knapsacks and ran for the freedom they coveted. One of these men marched two files in front of me. . . . The guard near me turned on his heels quickly, threw his heavy rifle to his shoulder, covered the running man, and shot him dead. Two of the remaining three fell dead as other rifles cracked. The fourth man ran through the shower of balls safely. I thought he was going to escape; but a tall, lithe officer ran after him, pistol in hand. He overtook the fugitive just as he was about to turn a street corner. He made no attempt to arrest the deserter, but placed his pistol to the back of the runaway’s head and blew his brains out as he ran. . . .”

Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter Gilbert


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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1864

One response to “Contempt for Bounty Men of 1863 and 1864

  1. Pingback: Young Private Vividly Remembers Fighting in the Wilderness | Civil War Book of Days

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