The Blue and the Gray in Black and White
Assessing the Scholarship on Civil War Soldiers*
By Aaron Sheehan-Dean

One of the persistent frustrations of historians of antebellum America is the paucity of primary sources from common people, black or white. The prohibitions on teaching literacy to slaves and the conditions of slavery partially explain the absence of extensive firsthand evidence from slaves themselves, but no such explanation exists with regard to middle- and lower-class whites. Thus, historians of slavery have to fall back on a method of triangulating their subjects through a variety of secondhand documents: court records, wills, census reports, newspaper accounts, and travelers’ observations. The difficulty this poses for historians of the antebellum South is fairly evident in most writings on the topic. Historians of the Civil War face the opposite problem. They have not too few sources from common people but too many. The mass of diary and letter collections, which has grown steadily over the past 140 years and continues to do so with each publishing season, threatens to overwhelm even the most dedicated reader.

            Despite the plethora of evidence from the war years, however, only in the last two decades have scholars begun using it in a systematic way to understand the experiences of common people during the Civil War. Soldiers’ accounts, in particular, have proved to be invaluable sources on questions ranging from emancipation and race to nationalism and reunion to gender and the family. The records created by soldiers on both sides of the conflict, the vast majority of whom can be classified as common people, have long been mined by historians to tell traditional stories regarding battles and elections. Anecdotes and records of individual movements are often crucial for scholars seeking to piece together a sequence of events during the typically chaotic Civil War battles. What was missing until the mid-1980s was an exploration of soldiers’ accounts that treated them as autonomous and important historical actors. How did soldiers understand the purpose of the war? How did they perceive the shift to emancipation and hard war? How did they conceptualize victory or defeat? The subfield of soldier studies within Civil War history developed rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s. Historians effectively addressed the questions just posed, and others, by turning their attention to the people who actually fought the war. Researchers also discovered that the utility of soldiers’ records goes well beyond questions regarding the war itself and its outcome. In the last few years, historians have also begun reading the accounts of soldiers to address larger questions about the American past. As the essays in this collection demonstrate, the correspondence of soldiers and their families reveals the beliefs and practices of ordinary men and women on a range of topics.

            The study of soldiers, along with the study of battles, defined the earliest attempts to gain historical perspective on the Civil War. In the decades after the conflict, veterans, their relatives, and admirers began this effort by composing thousands of regimental histories.1 This writing reflected all the strengths and weaknesses of history as it was practiced in the mid-nineteenth century. Simultaneously antiquarian and heroic, these accounts served more a memorial purpose than a historical one. The authors of regimental histories usually described the process of enlistment, tracked the movement of the unit, and explained the military engagements in which the soldiers were involved. Regimental histories often included extensive detail regarding soldiers’ lives, but they tended to be mostly institutional in their focus. The units were treated as representative of the communities within which they were organized, and their performance, usually on the battlefield, was analyzed as a means of assessing the virtue of those citizens. This tradition of writing continues today, with regimental histories that often include substantial information about soldiers but rarely analyze that material in historically useful ways.2 Although this approach to the study of soldiers is the chronological antecedent of current writing, the narrow focus and celebratory tone of most regimental histories ensured their isolation from the more analytical studies of soldiers that have emerged in the last two decades.

            Alongside regimental histories, the narratives written for several decades after the conflict focused mostly on the actions of generals and politicians. Description trumped explanation, and authors spent much of their energy showing how particular battles or campaigns unfolded. Ascertaining the correct sequence of events in a war is certainly essential to understanding how the final outcome was reached, but a fascination with Lee and Lincoln often replaced a deeper explanation of the meaning of the events under review. For writers operating in this mode, the diaries and letters of soldiers helped explain particular decisions or events. Little consideration was given to thinking about the war from the perspective of those who fought it; instead, their testimony was used to corroborate or explain the story of the war written from the headquarters tent or the White House.

            With little scholarship focusing on soldiers in the generations after the war, most historiographers have identified the origins of this field of research in the work of Bell Irvin Wiley.3 Wiley’s work was seminal, and the questions he posed have influenced several decades of scholarship. The study of Civil War soldiers, however, also developed as a response to larger changes in the discipline of history, such as the growth of social history and the use of quantitative methods. Over the last two decades, the field has moved toward increasingly analytical and historical studies that allow scholars to answer questions about the experience and outcome of the war as well as the course of American history in the nineteenth century. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the Civil War has been exhausted as a field of productive research, the growth and continuing development of soldier studies reveal historians’ ability to enrich well-established topics with new questions and new modes of analysis.

            Albert Burton Moore, with his study of Confederate conscription, and Ella Lonn, with her study of desertion, should be credited as the first scholars to treat soldiers on their own terms.4 Both crafted stories of the war that identified soldiers as the central agents of change and demonstrated the range of influences that inspired soldiers to act. Moore and Lonn provided a useful model for later scholars by using soldiers’ experiences to revise the standard accounts of the war. It was Wiley in the 1940s, however, who wrote the first holistic accounts of soldier life and helped inspire future scholars to see the range of topics that could be addressed by making soldiers the main objects of study. Wiley wrote at nearly the same time that Frank Owsley was working to put common whites back into the center of narratives on the antebellum South.5 Like Owsley, Wiley clearly liked his subjects. He saw most Civil War soldiers as good men who were earnestly committed to the causes they fought for, even if those causes did not factor too much into his explanation of their world. Wiley painted a comprehensive picture of the experiences of both Northern and Southern soldiers, emphasizing description instead of analysis. With the exception of a handful of articles in the 1960s and 1970s, Wiley’s work remained the main source and standard for histories of soldiers. Among the studies that did appear, many assumed a simplicity of calculation that later histories have rejected. David Donald’s 1959 article “The Confederate Man as Fighting Man” explained the loss of the Confederacy partly as a result of Southerners’ inability to overcome their democratic and localistic nature.6 Similarly, a 1969 article by Harry Scheiber assumed unalterable Southern opposition to centralized government and then worked backward to locate one source of the collapse of Confederate morale in tardy pay for Southern soldiers.7 Although these pieces improved on Wiley in their attention to argument, they retained the static quality that hampered much of the early writing on the topic.

            Calls to rejuvenate the study of soldiers emerged in the 1980s and were answered by a host of rigorous studies. Marvin Cain initiated the new movement with his request for American historians to produce something similar to John Keegan’s work on European warfare in his groundbreaking The Face of Battle.8 Keegan’s sympathetic and intimate evaluation of how soldiers acted and felt provided a lofty example for scholars, but it also emphasized soldiers’ military experiences at the expense of all else. Pursuit of Keegan’s model yielded dozens of important insights regarding why the war happened as it did and how people experienced it at the time, but this approach did not exhaust the ways that the writings of Civil War soldiers could be used. In particular, scholars have recognized that soldiering was only one part of most men’s identity. Nearly all Civil War soldiers volunteered, and it is fair to say that all of them retained their sense of being both soldier and civilian through the conflict. Alongside his historiographical analysis, Cain reminded scholars to treat soldiers as a part of their societies and to consider the moral implications of war and fighting.9 Cain’s primary focus on Union soldiers reflected an existing bias in the field, a trend that has been reversed only in the last several years. Most usefully, Cain raised a series of questions that future scholars could use as the starting points for their research: What was the relationship of officers to enlisted men? How did they understand each other? Why did soldiers follow orders? Cain also issued one of the earliest appeals for a study of Union soldiers’ reactions to emancipation, an issue that continues to interest and challenge historians.

            Maris Vinovskis issued the next plea for new research with his article “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War? Some Preliminary Demographic Speculations.”10 Although the article appeared in the middle of the wave of soldier scholarship produced between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, it influenced the direction of research in important ways. Vinovskis called on scholars to undertake another sort of investigation into the material left by soldiers, different from that recommended by Cain and other historians. Rather than asking traditional questions regarding battles, campaigns, and politics, he urged scholars to consider more general topics from U.S. history. Vinovskis bemoaned the lack of attention to what he called “the effects of the war on everyday life in the United States.” He encouraged social historians in particular to incorporate the war into their studies of people and places in the nineteenth century. Questions regarding birth, marriage, and death rates; class conflict; ethnic identity; race relations; and national memory all require a careful analysis of the war’s impact. Vinovskis’s article helped direct scholars to soldiers as the place to begin addressing these topics.

            Vinovskis’s injunction came at the start of an outpouring of research into soldiers and their experiences. Beginning in the early 1980s and cresting in the late 1990s, historians produced dozens of studies on the nature of the Civil War as it was lived by participants. Some of the best writing on soldiers has focused on the issue of motivation. American historians largely agree that slavery caused the Civil War, in the elemental sense that conflicts over slavery drove people of the two regions apart and precipitated the political breakdown of secession. Although accurate at the grand level of causation, slavery, in the abstract, does not explain what motivated individual Southern men to enlist and remain in armies, just as emancipation does not provide a satisfactory explanation for what motivated individual Northern men to do the same. Historians have responded to this problem by crafting increasingly sophisticated analyses of how soldiers understood the crisis of secession, the initiation of the war, and the changing nature of the conflict. Alongside these explanations of why citizens chose to make themselves soldiers has been a pressing need to explain why some also unmade themselves as soldiers, deserting the ranks to either return home or join the ranks of their former enemy. In addition to motivation, scholars have explored how soldiers impacted the course of the war and how the experience of war impacted them. The best studies demonstrate the interconnections among all three issues—motivation, experience, and effect.


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