Collection of the New-York Historical Society,
Brian Resnick The Atlantic
One hundred fifty years ago, the Civil War began and the fighting was brutal. Nearly 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers lost their lives -- more Americans than in both World Wars combined. The armies needed men to refill rapidly declining ranks and used recruitment advertisements such as these as a means to find them. Like the posters in later wars, the propaganda in this gallery (mostly Union, as Confederate posters are rare) used patriotic effigies such as Lady Liberty to entice recruits. But in contrast with the inspiring messages from the 20th century, the text of these posters is much more blunt. The sentiment "Don't wait to be drafted" fills a line on almost every flyer. Those who enlisted received a bounty for their troubles, sometimes totaling several hundred dollars. Those who did not faced possible conscription. This, of course, led to the occupation of bounty jumping, in which men would sign up, collect the cash, desert the army, and repeat the process. Congress later outlawed bounties in 1917 with the Selective Service Act.
The need for live bodies to fill regiments permeates these images. At the top of one poster is the bold-type command "Fill up the old regiments!", which begs the reader to ask, "What happened to the old regiments?" Some posters ask for recruits, while others use the more ominous terms "replacements" and "substitutes." Another poster asks for the wounded to reenlist in the "Invalid Corps," an army unit that performed basic garrison upkeep or hospital work.
The majority of these posters originate from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania (courtesy of the Civil War Treasures Collection at the New York Historical Society) and reflect the area's then-growing immigrant population -- new Americans are urged to enlist in Irish or German regiments. Taken together, these signs tell the story of the war as it was seen by the people who signed up to fight it.