While historians of combat, desertion, or nationalism used soldiers’ accounts and experiences to answer traditional questions about military and political affairs, other scholars adopted new strategies to investigate previously overlooked aspects of the war. In particular, studies of religion and gender allowed social and cultural historians entry into the Civil War arena. Gardiner Shattuck penned one of the first treatments of religion and Civil War armies.24 Shattuck was writing against the hagiographical treatment of Confederates and religion favored by J. William Jones in Christ in the Camp: Or, Religion in Lee’s Army.25 Whereas Jones lionized the religiosity of Confederate leaders, Shattuck began by describing the differences between prewar Northern and Southern Protestantism. For example, Northern churches advocated a “social morality” that sponsored reform movements, but Southern churches focused on “individual morality” and left social and political issues to the state. The result, according to Shattuck, was that Southern soldiers did not derive the same kind of inspiration from religion that Northern soldiers did. Later scholars tended to disagree. Drew Gilpin Faust, in her study of Confederate revivals, argued that although religion could propagate social conflict, it sustained most individuals through a traumatic time and offered a language with which to conceptualize defeat.26 Samuel Watson went even further, arguing that “religion pervaded the discourse of community at all levels; it played as important a part in sustaining individuals as it did in creating Confederate nationalism.”27 Religion continues to be one of the most fertile cross-fields, in part because it offers scholars the opportunity to comment on important pre- and postwar history while offering meaningful insights into wartime events.

            In the same way, gender emerged in the 1990s as one of the subjects that allowed social historians to work on the Civil War. Although much of the work on gender and the war revolved around the home front and the experiences of women, important work was done linking the emerging study of masculinity to the war. Stephen Frank’s study of fatherhood revealed the possibilities of blending cultural, social, and military history.28 Frank read Civil War sources not for what they said about the war per se but for what they revealed about how men conceptualized their responsibilities as fathers. James Marten took this one step further in his study of Confederate fathers as soldiers. Building on Frank’s argument that fatherhood constituted one of the most important aspects of soldiers’ identities, Marten explored how this orientation affected the war. Rather than leading men to abandon the armies to protect their families, Marten found that, “in the minds of southern men, the war had made being a good and loyal soldier one of the duties of being a good father.”29 The fullest study of masculinity and soldiering came from Reid Mitchell, whose The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home offered new ways to understand the conflict and its impact on American society.30 Mitchell identified the “ideology of domesticity” as the dominant mode within which most Northern soldiers were nurtured. As he explained, Union soldiers used the metaphors and values of domesticity to understand everything from how to interact with their officers and Southern women to the proper relations between races and classes.

            The research on soldiers and masculinity distinguishes itself precisely because the majority of studies on gender and the Civil War focus on women and the home front. This work has demonstrated the necessity of keeping both “fronts” in view when writing a full history.31 Women’s historians have pushed their analyses even further, including studies of those women who served as soldiers.32 This research, like the best of that on masculinity, has forced us to rethink how we explain motivation and other topics by showing that the traditional masculine imperatives of honor and aggression need to be recast or at least complemented by more universal notions of patriotism and civic duty. New perspectives on masculinity also help us rethink the larger narrative of American history. Although women served in small numbers—probably no more than several hundred on both sides during the war—their involvement reveals that women could become full participants in a public sphere from which they were actively excluded. As with other topics, war stories have the potential to upset long-standing notions about how Americans conceptualized their nation, their families, and themselves.

            One of the most important components of the inquiry into Civil War soldiers has been the experience of black men who fought for the Union. The dominance of the Lost Cause interpretation of the war for much of the twentieth century meant that most historians excluded from their work the topics of slavery, emancipation, and the role of black people generally. The writings of black historians such as W. E. B. DuBois offered a counternarrative that put slavery and emancipation at the center of the war, but it was not until after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that white scholars started paying serious attention to the role of black people in the war. It was an African American scholar, Benjamin Quarles, who first delineated the experiences of blacks, particularly those who served in the Union army. Quarles’s 1953 The Negro in the Civil War accomplished for black soldiers what Wiley’s work had done for whites.33 Although subsequent scholarship on the black military experience has not kept pace with its white counterpart, a number of excellent monographs and important primary source collections have been published.34 These works demonstrate the centrality of the issue of race to the causes and outcomes of the war and the importance of the contribution made by black soldiers to the Union war effort.

            The studies of black troops in the Union army complicate the picture of a glorious army of liberation, revealing instead one fraught with institutional discrimination and deep conflicts over the purpose of the war. African Americans themselves, we now know, wrestled with the decision to support the Union. They were neither blind to Northern whites’ reluctance to support emancipation nor sure that it would not be revoked later. Partly because of the unique nature of the issue, black soldiers are still generally treated as a topic separate from regular studies of soldiers. Joseph Glatthaar’s Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and Their White Officers is one of the few studies that focuses on the race relations that developed during the war.35 Glatthaar’s study of both races as they functioned in the segregated United States Colored Troops reveals the sympathy and support that even initially hostile white officers developed after leading black soldiers in battle. This shift of racial sentiment demonstrates the power of the war to reorder priorities and outlooks in important ways. Despite the progress made during the war, Glatthaar found that few officers became advocates for blacks in the postwar period; the disillusionment of battle and the strength of postwar racial ideologies overwhelmed the positive credit that black soldiers had earned. Yet Glatthaar’s work and current research into the effect of the Civil War on racial outlooks—among soldiers and others—remind us that the outcomes of the war were neither foreordained nor predictable. Continued research into the black war experience and into the racial attitudes of white soldiers may reveal a history we have not yet seen.

            The maturation of the field could be seen by the late 1980s, when a host of studies offered increasingly sophisticated interpretations of how and why soldiers acted as they did. Randall Jimerson and Earl Hess penned two of the most compelling treatments of motivation. Jimerson’s study, which analyzed both Northern and Southern soldiers, provided the now standard explanation that Southerners seceded and fought to protect slavery, to preserve self-government, and to resist being conquered by Yankees. Northerners, in contrast, fought because the Union offered the best defense of both the institution of democracy and the freedom that democracy was designed to foster.36 Hess’s account, which focused on Northern soldiers, identified ideology as central to the war effort. In his telling, self-government, democracy, individualism, and egalitarianism were the key characteristics of the antebellum Republic and the values most threatened by a victory by the slaveholding South.37 Writing a decade later, but in the same vein, James McPherson offered the fullest ideological explanation of the war yet. In McPherson’s account, the soldiers of both sides were motivated primarily by a defense of liberty, defined according to regional tastes. Studies of World War II veterans had revealed that men valued their fellow soldiers and the camaraderie they shared above any abstract philosophical defenses of the war. Not so with Civil War soldiers, argued McPherson, who identified in their public and private writings a sincere commitment to abstractions that would have baffled modern soldiers.38 These studies and others like them that singled out particular elements, such as religion, race, or masculinity, offered an intellectual history of the Civil War told through its participants. Although all three authors mentioned in this paragraph focused their analyses on explaining the war itself, they also pointed the way toward wider histories of the war that connected participants and events with the general trends of nineteenth-century America.

            One more indication of the maturation of the field can be seen in how historians now integrate analyses of soldiers into their texts on all topics. In particular, studies of Confederate defeat, communities, and gender include thoughtful considerations of the role of soldiers. For the last decade, many historians have been preoccupied by the problem of how to explain the conclusion of the Civil War. Did the Union win, or the Confederacy lose? In particular, many scholars have argued that the Confederacy collapsed internally from an erosion of morale or lack of faith in its new federal government. In most accounts that make this argument, class conflict is offered as the central element eroding that faith.39 Disaffection on the home front often plays a prominent role in these accounts, but a full and convincing argument must rest on evidence that a significant number of soldiers abandoned their willingness to fight for the Confederacy. So far, scholars have uncovered isolated instances of soldiers abandoning the army, but not the kind of uniform disaffection that the most ambitious texts argue for.40

            Much of the best recent scholarship on the Civil War can be found in the community studies that explain the experience of the war across a wide range of perspectives,41 including that of the soldier. Martin Crawford’s recent history of Ashe County, North Carolina, provides a good example of how local histories are enriched when the soldiers who left a particular place are tied back into the story. Crawford’s account alternates between the soldiers and the community they left, describing the shifts in belief and outlook as a product of the experiences of both places. The result is a much more nuanced picture of both soldiers and civilians than we could have expected two decades ago. G. Ward Hubbs’s recent study of an Alabama community shows this phenomenon in even finer detail.42 His subtitle, A Confederate Company in the Making of a Southern Community, indicates the extent to which battlefront and home front are intimately connected throughout the narrative. Hubbs fulfills this promise with a narrative that describes how the community of Greensboro, Alabama, was built by the sacrifices and hardship shared by white soldiers and civilians of the town. He shows that only by taking seriously the experiences of both home front and battlefront can we understand the racial and social order of the New South.


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