A Member of the 8th Missouri Infantry Reflects on Why He Enlisted

This blog post was originally posted on Emerging Civil War by Kristen M. Pawlak, the same author of Missouri’s Civil War Blog.

One of the most thorough and remarkable diaries I have come across from a Missouri soldier is from a non-commissioned officer in the 8th Missouri Infantry. A German immigrant and Peoria, Illinois resident, Phillip A. Smith joined the “American Zouaves” regiment in St. Louis in the summer of 1861. Like many Missouri Union regiments, the 8th Missouri was largely composed of German immigrants (even though Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon wanted more native-born Americans for this unit, hence the name) and built primarily of Missourians and Illinoians.

Sgt. Phillip A. Smith donned in his 8th Missouri Infantry Zouave uniform. Courtesy of the Peoria Historical Society.

On July 22, 1861, just days after mustering in at the St. Louis Arsenal and encamped at Jefferson City, the state capital that had been occupied by Federal forces at the start of the 1861 Missouri Campaign, Smith laid in bed and penned this diary entry about why he enlisted for three years of service in the Union Army. He reflected on the developing crisis, the rebellion, and “the slave question.” At that time, Lyon’s Army of the West was on an offensive campaign in pursuit of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard into southwestern Missouri. Smith, fervently pro-Union and antislavery, was deeply disturbed and angry toward Confederates, as seen below.

“Jefferson City Mo. July 22nd, 1861.

As I lay in my bed this morning I got to thinking that as I had enlisted in the Army for the period of Three years. Through which time many an incident would occur and many an event take place that would be a pleasure and likely much interest not only to myself if God so wills that I pass safely through this war, but to my friends in the future, I have concluded to Keep a Diary, and shall endeavor to keep it as accurate as can be done under circumstances and conditions under which for what little experience I have already had, I will have to contend with. 

I have left home and a good situation thrown all peaceful avocations aside and have grasped the weapon of death for the purpose of doing my part in defending and upholding the Integrity Laws and the preservation of my adopted County from a horse of Contemptible traitors, who would if they can accomplish their Hellish designs destroy the best and Noblest Government on Earth. Merely for the purpose of benefiting themselves on the slave question. They want to have a Government of their own whose chief Cornerstone shall be Human Slavery. They say that the reason they have seceded was that the North having elected a man to the Presidential chair who is opposed to slavery, will use his Power to oppose and even crush it. That they stand No show of security, That the future will or would be an aggression of the People of the North on their state Institutions and to secure themselves from all this, they would Withdraw from the Union.”

As someone deeply devoted to his new country and its principles, Smith used his diary to reflect on his enlistment and the deeper meaning of his cause. Even at the beginning of the war, he believed in the cause of abolishing slavery and preventing the South from perpetuating the institution while breaking up the country to do so. He knew he was not built to be a soldier, but he would fight and die for his new home.

“I am a young man. Am not of soldierly propensity, but one thing is sure I shall not lay down my musket until this Wicked Rebellion is subdued and the Seceded States brought back to allegiance. I also hope and pray that as the South is fighting for nothing in the World to perpetuate slavery, that not a single state shall be permitted to resume her place in the Union until she has rid herself of this damnable institution hanging to her skirts.”

Smith’s remarkable diary is in the collection of the Peoria Historical Society in Peoria, Illinois – his hometown. His thought-provoking diary is certainly a treasure; it forces us to ponder how his perspectives, ideologies, and viewpoints evolved throughout the war. Stay tuned for more from Sgt. Phillip Smith and his war experience serving in the 8th Missouri Infantry.

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