In our view
You didn't "join the Army" in those days. Instead, you got together with a gang of local men, a hundred or a thousand, and you volunteered en masse. And you fought together as a unit, under the U.S. flag, but with full local identity.
Those regiments even elected their officers. Few facts of the American Civil War speak to the difference between America then and now as that one does.
It was long ago, and it was not so long ago. There are old people yet with us who remember, when they were young, old men who had fought that war.
Much would have been familiar to us at the end of April 1863. The same bird songs warbled for spring; even the teams in the fields would not seem strange to Lancaster County folks.
By the start of the third full year of the war, the people around the county would have known the armies were pulling up stakes from winter camps, and battles loomed.
In modern wars, Lancaster County people serve all across the map of battle. Because of the old enlistment system in the early Civil War, the local soldiers served in bunches. One large group was down in middle Tennessee at this point. Another was with the army outside Washington.
And in these spring days at the end of April 1863 the Northern army had indeed broken camp and was on the move again. No doubt glad to be out of fusty quarters, the young men in blue looked south toward Richmond. They did not know that the roads ahead would take them instead to Chancellorsville, then Gettysburg.
Among them was Lancaster's John F. Reynolds, recently promoted to major general. The bullet that would find him on the first day at Gettysburg probably already was nestled in some rebel sharpshooter's ammunition pouch.
One consequence of the old enlistment system was that even a small battle involving a local unit could sweep like a scythe through a small town hundreds of miles north.
Telegraph wires were the Internet then. By early May local people coming to Lancaster or Columbia would glance at the newspaper offices to see if battle bulletins were posted, to be followed a few days or weeks later by casualty lists.
By the end of the summer, the old regiments were so depleted the government started consolidating them, and it started drafting men directly into its service, something that would have horrified the Founders. Officers weren't elected.
The nation's vexing modern problems have roots in the way the federal government had to beef its powers to win that war. That is one reason it is worth attention: Not to glorify war, but to learn what mistakes people make in the name of victory.