Studying Civil War Soldiers:  The State of the Art and Science
By Michael Barton

            Among the many scholarly books written about the Civil War, only a relatively few volumes have treated Civil War soldiers as a subject in themselves.  The topic was scarcely studied until Prof. Bell Irvin Wiley’s seminal works—The Life of Johnny Reb (LSU, 1943) and The Life of Billy Yank (LSU, 1952)—were published two or three wars later.  Wiley not only conceived the subject, he also led the development of its materials and methods.   That is to say, he studied Civil War soldiers by concentrating on their war-time diaries and letters, and he kept detailed notes on the documents’ contents.  Wiley wrote that he had read ten thousand Confederate letters in researching Johnny Reb, and twenty thousand Union letters in writing Billy Yank.  Several hundred diaries from both armies were also his sources in his two books, and he quoted hundreds of soldiers effectively throughout those volumes.  Wiley’s works stood alone on the shelf for almost forty years, perhaps because it was difficult for historians to imagine what more could be done with the subject. 

            Then, beginning in the late 1970s, a surge of books about Civil War soldiers came forth.  Perhaps they were stimulated by Michael Shaara’s 1974 Pulitzer prize-winning and imaginative work about men fighting at Gettysburg, The Killer Angels (Ballantine), or perhaps they were provoked by John Keegan’s esteemed, path-breaking 1976 study, The Face of Battle (Viking).  Wiley’s Johnny Reb and Billy Yank were reissued by LSU Press in 1978, so perhaps that publishing event was the stimulus for scholars.  Penn State Press published my dissertation, Goodmen:  The Character of Civil War Soldiers, in 1981 (wherein I pointed out the earlier articles on soldiers by Fred Shannon, David Donald and Peter Maslowski), but my book was probably not related to the surge.  In fact, I wasn’t writing about Civil War soldiers so much as I was contributing, I hoped, to a much older discussion about the American national character.  Soldiers’ diaries and letters, I said, were a “convenient database” for my research, and I described Goodmen as “a quantitative sociolinguistic case study in historical psychological anthropology.”  I have to plead that I was still in a dissertation frame of mind when I wrote that.

            As for the real surge of soldier books in the 1980s, there was, first, Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson’s treatise, Attack and Die:  Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (Alabama, 1982).  One would have to say that was a curious book too, concentrating as it did on the Celtic ethnic heritage of Southerners in order to account for their reckless ferocity.  Gerald F. Linderman’s, Embattled Courage:  The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (Free Press, 1987) was immediately controversial for its insistence that soldiers’ morale and ideals declined through the course of the war.  Earl J. Hess, in Liberty, Virtue and Progress: Northerners and Their War for the Union (NYU, 1988) subsequently argued that soldiers were quite motivated by values while they were in battle.  Likewise, Reid Mitchell in his well-reviewed Civil War Soldiers:  Their Expectations and Their Experiences (Viking Penguin, 1988), contended that troops on both sides, despite the carnage, were conscious of the moral meaning of their work.  Bell Wiley’s student, James I. Robertson, Jr., produced Soldiers Blue and Gray (South Carolina, 1988) the same year.  Robertson wrote that his book was no replacement for Wiley, but he hoped it would give a new and fresh appraisal of the soldiers.  The result was a study full of quotations like the classic Wiley texts, but it described soldiers who were somewhat more humorous and critical than Wiley’ down-to-earth warriors.  Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Civil War (Yale, 1989) was more about military science than soldiers, interpreting the conflict as the last of the Napoleonic-style wars.

            James M. McPherson changed the debate with his Fleming lectures at LSU in 1993, first published as What They Fought For, 1861-1865 (LSU, 1994), which was re-conceived in 1997 as the Lincoln prize-winning book, For Cause and Comrades:  Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford, 1997).  Using 25,000 letters and nearly 250 diaries from more than a thousand men in both armies, McPherson took issue with Gerald Linderman, and perhaps more significantly, with Bell Wiley.  McPherson tried to settle the argument about motivation by using quantification.  Rather than rely on terms such as “more” or “less” or “tend to,” McPherson stated what percentage of soldiers he found that believed in one value or another.  He insisted that “ideological motifs almost leap from many pages” of the soldiers’ diaries and letters, and that an “attentive historian” would soon discover this fact (p. 91).  Was McPherson implying that Bell Wiley, who de-emphasized ideology, had not been paying attention?  I don’t believe Civil War historians have yet acknowledged how remarkable McPherson’s statement is. 

            I agreed with McPherson’s results because they fit nicely with my own         findings published several years earlier, although he did not cite them.  Writing in the American Historical Review, Richard Beringer had called Goodmen “a model of the new social history,” but perhaps McPherson had been warned away from it by other scholars.  Quantifying value-laden sentences in diaries and letters by a computer-assisted method called content analysis, I had concluded that Union and Confederate soldiers were, in short, value-laden men.  My problem with McPherson’s book was that he had told us nothing about his methodology, which is crucial in content analysis.  For the best example of methodologically keen content analysis in Civil War studies, I recommend Joseph Allan Frank and George A. Reaves, “Seeing the Elephant”:  Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh (Greenwood, 1989).  In this same vein, my disagreement with Wiley was not only about his findings and methods but also with his assertion that if you removed the identifications from the soldiers’ letters and diaries you would not be able to tell which men from which army had written which documents. But I had been able to demonstrate, with the statistical technique of discriminant function analysis, that if you paid attention to soldiers’ manner of expression you would have a better than random chance of telling whether the writer was a northerner or a southerner and an enlisted men or an officer.  It came down to matters not of content but of style—the writer’s tendency to use incomplete sentences, particular pronouns, and so forth.  To oversimplify, I suggested that northerners were emotionally different from southerners.

            Alongside McPherson’s work, other useful and suggestive studies were compiling in the 1990s.  Joseph T. Glatthaar’s, Forged in Battle:  The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (Free Press, 1990), followed a decade later by John David Smith’s Black Soldiers in Blue:  African American Troops in the Civil War Era (North Carolina, 2002), and Keith Wilson’s Campfires of Freedom:  The Camp Life of Black Soldiers During the Civil War (Kent State, 2002), brought more attention to African American soldiery.  Larry J. Daniel’s respected Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee:  A Portrait of Life in a Confederate Army (North Carolina, 1991), Reid Mitchell’s inventive The Vacant Chair:  The Northern Soldier Leaves Home (Oxford, 1993), Larry M. Logue’s valuable To Appomattox and Beyond:  The Civil War Soldier in War and Peace (Ivan R. Dee, 1996), which discusses both soldiers and veterans, Earl J. Hess’s important The Union Soldier in Battle:  Enduring the Ordeal of Combat (Kansas, 1997), and Eric T. Dear, Jr.’s impressive Shook Over Hell:  Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War (Harvard, 1997) each took scholarship in provocative new directions.  Joseph Allan Frank’s With Ballot and Bayonet:  The Political Socialization of American Civil War Soldiers (Georgia, 1998) was another singular contribution in social science history, using the diaries and letters of a thousand troops to show that they were motivated by political values.  We now have material on women soldiers, available in Elizabeth D. Leonard’s All the Daring of the Soldier:  Women of the Civil War Armies (Norton, 1999), and DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook’s, They Fought Like Demons:  Women Soldiers in the Civil War (LSU, 2002).      


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