Joseph Glatthaar’s seminal study, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaign, offers one of the clearest analyses of how soldiers had to rethink the nature of the war as they experienced it. Glatthaar’s analysis begins with the army in 1864, but the early chapters include a demographic and intellectual portrait of Sherman’s men that addresses the question of initial motivation. In a chapter entitled “The Army and the Cause,” Glatthaar explains that most Northern men enlisted to defend the Union and remained in the army because of a continued commitment to that goal and faith in their commander, “Uncle Billy,” and because of the accumulated investment made in blood over the previous three years.11 Glatthaar’s analysis paved the way for future scholarship by showing how the experience of the war forced soldiers to reconsider the elements that held them in service. For Sherman’s troops in particular, fighting their way across the Lower South, the problems of race and slavery forced themselves into the soldiers’ consciousness. Although few Northerners entered the war to emancipate slaves, the experience of fighting through Southern communities and of coming to know slaves and their masters firsthand shifted the opinion of many Union soldiers. By historicizing the opinions of soldiers, Glatthaar added a crucial temporal dimension to studies of soldiers that had previously been missing.

            The recognition that soldiers could change their minds over time, although perhaps not revelatory to those outside the field, opened up a variety of possibilities for scholars of the war. Reid Mitchell, Gerald Linderman, and Mark Grimsley all crafted vigorously historical accounts of soldiers that demonstrated significant change over time. Mitchell’s first book, Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences, characterized soldiers on both sides as retreating from the noble beliefs that spurred the conflict. Mitchell offered one of the first clear analyses of Confederate enlistment, arguing that it was motivated by defensive, fearful visions of the North imposing a new racial order. He captured this outlook with the insight that “the Civil War was a war to protect freedom before it was a war to extend freedom.”12 Northern soldiers, for their part, enlisted to protect liberty as well, but they identified the Union as the bulwark of that liberty. Family honor, the demands of masculinity, and patriotic loyalty to one’s country factored significantly into the motivations of both Northern and Southern men. Whereas Glatthaar’s narrative captured a sense of the partial redemption that Union soldiers experienced through the dual accomplishments of emancipation and military victory, Mitchell showed the dehumanizing effect of military service and the extent to which the war exacerbated sectional animosity on the individual level.

            Gerald Linderman’s Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War showed a similar arc of change, but one that was explained through a constellation of Victorian values that slowly eroded during the war.13 Like Mitchell, Linderman saw soldiers as entering the war with refined and unrealistic notions of service. Courage, manhood, religion, honor, and knightliness all died in the mud alongside comrades at Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg. The institutional qualities of discipline and obedience held the armies together after the disillusionment of modern warfare forced itself on the soldiers. Linderman’s interpretation satisfied those who longed to see soldiers treated not as static objects but as thinking beings, but the obvious imprint of twentieth-century military experiences left others dissatisfied.14

            Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861–1865, though not focused exclusively on soldiers, offered a still more nuanced account of the transformation of values.15 Grimsley’s account explained the shift in Union military policy, from the “rosewater” policy of the war’s first year to the “hard” war of 1862 and beyond, as partly the product of a change in how Union soldiers understood the war. The anger and hostility of the mostly Confederate civilians of the white South contradicted early expectations of a grateful and largely Unionist Southern public. In response, Northern soldiers increasingly sanctioned direct reprisals against the property, both human and inanimate, of Southern citizens. Grimsley’s work neatly joins a careful analysis of how the war reshaped soldiers with an equally insightful analysis of how soldiers, in turn, reshaped the terms of the war. The reciprocal nature of this historical relationship demonstrates the maturation of the field as a whole—Civil War soldiers are no longer objects to be pulled out of the war for dissection but are living parts of the whole experience that can be understood only in relation to the context within which they exist.

            During the 1980s and 1990s, a blizzard of studies descended. Most of these were tightly argued and focused on wartime questions. All drew on the substantial base of archival material that was still relatively underutilized by Civil War scholars. One of the most obvious places for Civil War scholars to focus their energies was on the experience of fighting. Virtually every author who writes about soldiers also writes about combat, but several authors made it their exclusive focus. Joseph Frank and George Reaves used the battle of Shiloh to explore the effect of combat on novice soldiers, and their conclusion was that soldiers survived with generally the same worldview they had before the battle.16 This somewhat surprising summary reflects the emerging historiographical shift that defines soldiers as being shaped and influenced more by their civilian experiences than by their military ones. Current scholars do not deny the impact of service, but their research tends to reinforce factors such as political philosophy and family relations as being central to soldiers’ conception of the conflict.

Earl Hess’s analysis of Union soldiers and combat revealed a type of evolutionary growth, whereby volunteers processed their military experiences through outlooks formed as civilians. In a direct rejection of the chronology laid out by Linderman, Hess argued that most men became better soldiers over time. Hess addressed the questions of cowardice and suffering raised by Linderman but found that seasoned soldiers performed their jobs more efficiently rather than becoming disaffected. Hess characterized the effects of the transformation as follows: “becoming men of war did not necessarily destroy the soldier’s commitment to the issues of the conflict or his willingness to temporarily embrace the deadly game of the warrior to achieve the war’s goals.”17

            Alongside combat, desertion remains one of the key unresolved topics in Civil War literature. Interest in the subject stems partly from the inherent fascination of both scholars and readers in the question of loyalty and the nature of men who abandon a commitment to defend their nation. A broad set of community studies demonstrated the difficulty of generalizing about patterns of desertion.18 These works opened questions that have yet to be fully answered. The old assumption, that desertion was a minor problem attributable to cowardice on the part of individual soldiers, proved to be incorrect. Confirming the conclusion reached by Lonn in her pioneering study, most of the recent scholarship has demonstrated that desertion had serious effects on both armies. Still, many of the studies, such as Judith Lee Halleck’s on New York and David Smith’s on Texas, situate the causes of desertion in the particular places where the units originated. Kevin Ruffner’s study of one regiment in the much-lauded Stonewall Brigade revealed surprisingly high desertion rates, which he explained as a consequence of the officers’ failure to secure proper supplies for a hard winter, as well as poor leadership in general. Thus, Ruffner’s conclusion, like those of many other local studies, inhibits scholars’ ability to offer desertion as evidence of mass disillusionment or as an explanation for Confederate defeat. Conversely, in the only book-length study of desertion, Mark Weitz argues that the invasion of Georgia by Union troops and the consequent hardships imposed, particularly on lower-class residents, spurred high rates of desertion after 1863 among north Georgia units.19 The loss of these men weakened the ability of Confederate troops in the region to resist Sherman’s advance and led to high numbers of people abandoning the Confederacy. Only more state studies and thorough study of the whole Confederacy and the whole Union can yield a definitive answer on the question of how desertion affected the war as a whole.

            The issue of loyalty raised by studies of desertion has inspired historians to probe more deeply into nationalism as it relates to both the Union and the Confederacy. One of the defining elements of modern, popular wars is that soldiers fight partly, if not mostly, out of loyalty to the nation-state that sends them into battle. Beginning with the French Revolution and the successful effort to raise a mass army, democratic governments built militia systems to eliminate the need for standing professional armies. Although America’s antebellum militia system did not necessarily produce effective soldiers, it was one of the many mechanisms that reinforced the notion that the rights of citizenship were balanced by the obligation to defend one’s nation militarily. Civil War scholars have explored how both Northerners and Southerners conceptualized this obligation and how it changed over the course of the war. For most Northern soldiers, an ideological belief in a perpetual Union demanded a physical defense of that Union.20 Because the North won the conflict, the distorting power of hindsight can obscure wartime challenges to Northern unity and assume as fact the failure of Confederate nationalism. Sectional hostility to the South made fighting easier, but the increasingly antislavery policies of the North required reluctant emancipators to confront the notion of fighting for a nation despite opposition to its policies. Although a belief in the Union remained a viable source of inspiration for many Northerners throughout the conflict, the length and nature of the war severely tested Northern soldiers’ sense of nationalism.

            Scholars of the Confederacy have had even greater difficulty with this issue. Finding Confederate soldiers who opposed the policies of their government is relatively easy—the draft, impressment, and the tax in kind generated intense controversy and a mountain of complaints. Determining whether that dissatisfaction indicated disloyalty to the nation has been more difficult. Some scholars have argued that soldiers’ active engagement with the political issues of the day reveals a commitment to improving the nation, and hence their support; others have stressed the divisiveness of such debates.21 The role played by white Southerners who retained their faith in the Union through the conflict and fought on behalf of the United States further complicates the issue.22 Still, the fact that Southern communities mobilized roughly 80 percent of their eligible men to fight in the war must be regarded as evidence that many people supported the Confederacy. Regardless of the argument being advanced, changes in the study of Confederate nationalism in recent years reveal the strides that historians have made, as new investigations ground themselves in a serious consideration of the people who made nationalism at the ground level, as opposed to those who formulated it in Richmond.23


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