BILLY YANK

Historian Bell Wiley titled his study of the common soldier in the North "Life of Billy Yank." He didn't invent the name; it was the personification of the Union soldier in contemporary writings and cartoons. Like everything else in a split nation, the old "Brother Jonathan" figure of the early 19th century bifurcated into Johnny Reb and Billy Yank.

But the name, I suspect, is more than arbitrary; it reflects a truth of statistics.

In researching a book about 20 years ago, I compiled roughly 2,600 names of young men in Chester County, Pennsylvania, who volunteered or were drafted into the Northern armies in the Civil War. "William" was the second-most common name, and fully 107 of them bore the given name William H. or William H.H.

It wasn't hard to guess who they were named for. The average age of Civil War soldiers was early 20s, which means most of these boys would have been born in the early 1840s -- right around the time William Henry Harrison rose to the White House then died there.

This corner of the world that I had been studying had been one of the last bastions of Federalism, clinging to the old party long after it had died elsewhere. By the time Harrison won election, the Philadelphia hinterland had had no successful candidate on a national level that matched its collective political sensibility for almost a generation. Though Harrison's Whig party was more a coalition than a party, in southeastern Pennsylvania (and many other places in the North) it also was the solid conservative heir to the Federalists.

The 1840 presidential election was tumultuous. Campaigning was underway all summer, and for the first time in an American election, style triumphed over substance on a grand scale. The Whigs compensated for Harrison's lack of presidential timber by surrounding the candidate with sham symbols of his alleged honest backwoods character. Harrison actually was a wealthy man, a scion of Virginia gentry who owned two thousand acres, but a derisive Baltimore Democratic newspaper article suggesting that Harrison would be content to retire to a log cabin with a military pension and a barrel of hard cider was seized on by the Whigs and used to symbolically transform their man into a folk hero from the sturdy frontier. They also puffed his war record. Harrison had defeated Shawnee Chief Tecumseh's defensive alliance of Indian tribes in Indiana Territory in 1811, and he had helped clear the British from the Northwest in the War of 1812, defending Fort Miegs and winning a battle on the Thames River in Canada.

The whole political campaign was astonishingly cynical, but it resonated in many places, including West Chester, Pennsylvania, if for no other reason than that it gave the town an excuse for a colorful parade. Anti-Masons like bookstore owner Samuel M. Painter were now in the Whig camp, and they brought their political zeal to the new party, to the embarrassment of more aristocratic Whigs, who favored Henry Clay. Walter Hibbard of West Chester wrote to a friend on June 26:

We have had a d----l of a time lately about log cabins & hard cider and such like clap trap. You may probably remember how violently "Squire Sam" was opposed to Harrison some time ago. He is now on the other extreme, wild with the excitement of processions and flags & banners, filling his book store with pictures of generals, log cabins and cider barrels, Harrison almanacs and political pamphlets and descriptions of Tippicanoe, Fort Meigs & the Thames & the Lord knows what. He went with many others from this place to the convention and he & hic and some others of them yelled so infernally on the occasion that they were hoarse for several days. Seriously, I was disgusted with the silly farce exhibited here on the ninth of June (a mighty outpouring though it was). Men with log cabins and cider barrels in them and calabashes to drink out of, swilling hard cider in the public streets. Deer skins and gridirons and coffee pots hung about the cabins, with their banners and mottoes, proceeded by Jimmy Powel and others with handsaws and axes & hatchets, yelling at intervals like savages.
And Hibbard was a Harrison supporter. Harrison won big in West Chester, captured the presidency, and promptly died, the first U.S. president to die in office.

In such a dramatic atmosphere, it's not surprising that parents named their newborn sons "William Henry Harrison." National census data suggests a higher ratio of "Williams" to "Johns" in the decade 1841-50 than in the previous 10 years, though John remained the most common boys' name in America throughout the period. The Whigs were not a sectional party, like their heirs, the Republicans, but it is likely the enthusiasm for Harrison had been strongest in the states that stayed in the union in 1860-1.

Perhaps some of the men named "William H." in my list were not named "William Henry Harrison." But probably some of the men simply listed in the muster rolls as "William" were.

The practice of naming sons after prominent political leaders was common in early America. Also on my Chester County enrollment list were 44 young men named "Benjamin F." or "B. Franklin." There were 15 named "Thomas J." and 10 "Andrew J.," predictably low numbers in a county where Democrats were a minority.

By far the next most popular political legacy name on my list (after William H.H.) seems to have been "George W.," which accounts for some 98 names (not counting simple "George" or "Washington").

But some 22 bore the name "Henry C.," and many of them no doubt were named in honor of the great Whig leader Clay. Amid other ironies of the time, 1840 was the election Henry Clay should have won, but he did not run that year. After Harrison's death, the Kentucky senator re-emerged as the Whig stalwart and Chester County's favorite.

Two bore the name of Dewitt Clinton, an early Federalist leader. Thomas Hart Benton, Daniel Webster and Lewis Cass seem to have earned a handful each. At least one boy in the set was named for Martin van Buren and another for John Quincy Adams. And it's likely that a rough attempt to honor the Marquis de Lafayette is represented in the 175th Pennsylvania Infantry's soldier Marcus D. Lafayette Freed.

INDEX - AUTHOR


Online Work

The SCIOLIST

ONLINE ETYMOLOGY DICTIONARY

SLAVERY in the NORTH

CIVIL WAR and AFTER

Cold War Nightmares
We grew up thinking there was a pretty good chance, maybe 50:50 or worse, that the whole world was going to go up in a nuclear fireball holocaust some day in the near future, without any warning to any of us.

Under the Grass
Memorial Day began not in one place but in many. Hilltop cemeteries across the North, behind old stone churches and meetings, with long views across the farms.

Lincoln on Dissent
The Great Emancipator shows his political skill, in a way Bush and Cheney can only envy and never hope to match, in pulling the rug out from under the Democratic opposition.

Boring Postcards
I still don't know any more about these postcards than what they show and tell.

Old Money
In West Berlin in the '70s, I bought in an antique shop a stack of old German World War I-era currency.

J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien was a devout Catholic. But as a scholar Tolkien was deeply immersed in the pessimistic, pagan world that he studied and taught every day.

August 8, 2005 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"