Into Rebeldom: How the Physical Journey South Impacted Union Soldiers

by Chris Wehner
November 29th, 2009

Into Rebeldom: How the Physical Journey South Impacted Union Soldiers

Chris Wehner, Master Candidate, American Public University

According to historian Aaron Sheehan-Dean the study of the Civil War soldier is best achieved when focused on the “interconnections” of “motivation, experience, and effect.” [1] And indeed, for decades now historians have analyzed all three aspects of the soldier. Take, for example, the factors that were involved in motivating someone to enlist, and then re-enlist during the war.[2] Historians have explored ideology and ethos, including the political, social, economic and religious determinants of a soldier. The experiences of the soldier, mostly related to combat, have also been extensively examined. Finally, the effects of those experiences of war and how they impacted the soldier, including redefinitions of courage and other ensuing pathologies of battle, have received much attention. Intertwined among these themes exists subtopics of race and gender, among others.[3]

Where the analysis of these “interconnections” gets hazy is in the qualifying nature of interpreting a Civil War soldier’s correspondence. Statements and revelations within a diary or letter sometimes have to be qualified by the historian before they can be categorized or measured, and this leads to an imperfect science. Studies have tried to measure the “political articulateness” of soldiers in an attempt to determine their awareness or sophistication of understanding. [4] Such studies are hopelessly flawed as the measures used are based entirely on the historian making a judgment call, hence qualifying the statements of a soldier writing 140 years ago – a daunting task, to be sure.

What this paper will focus on is how Civil War soldier’s views changed, if at all, toward such controversial issues as slavery, emancipation, Southern culture (women, Chivalry), and the war itself. What surprised and shocked them, and what does that tell us about both the soldiers and Southern society in the 1860s? For our purposes here, the soldiers will speak for themselves without the author qualifying their statements.

On February 11, 1862, Oliver Wilcox Norton took his pen in hand to write a letter to his dear cousin. The meandering correspondence exposed a question that nagged him, and hindered his writing. He then revealed his trepidation, stating, “What shall I write?” He continued: “It seems to the soldier when he takes up the pen as though there was nothing to write unless he has something to tell of gallant exploits in his own occupation, a brilliant victory over superior numbers of the enemy, in which he was one of the heroes.” For Norton and others, a soldier’s life was ninety-nine percent pure boredom and one percent pure terror where, “[a] man is not a hero till he is shot at and missed. He who is shot at and killed is covered with the sod and forgotten by all but the narrow circle of his immediate friends.”[5]

As we know, Northern soldiers (like their counterparts) were predominantly from rural areas. They grew up on family farms that were sometimes isolated in desolate areas. Some had never left their county, let alone their state. [6] As the soldiers will tell us themselves, the conditions on family farms in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota or New York, were quite different than the impoverished family farms or wealthy plantations they found in the South.

Chauncey H. Persons was a private with the 24th New York Infantry. From the small town of Lorraine, Jefferson County, New York, where he grew up on a family farm with his father, James, and his mother, Theda, along with three brothers and a sister. Lorraine, situated near the confluence of Hull Creek and Deer Creek, lied in backwoods country to be sure. The community was located in prime cattle and farm country with plenty of grain, potatoes and corn and it consisted of 1,687 people at the outbreak of the war. Though some industry had evolved in Lorraine, it was made up mostly of grist and saw mills, and furniture and hardware stores as farming dominated their way of life during the mid-1800s. As for religion, local citizens were pretty evenly split between Baptist and Methodist denominations. Life in and around Lorraine provided a simple, yet arduous existence. Persons surely expected to find much of the same during his journey south.[7]

In October of 1861, Persons was in Virginia, near Upton Hills. The 24th New York Infantry camp, located near Falls Church, was a foreign land to him: “It don't look as if human beings ever lived here,” he observed. While on picket duty Persons and some companions went in search of milk and when they came across an outlining home of Falls Church, “everything looked so nasty that it took our appetite away for milk,” he declared. The first thing that Northern soldiers typically noted about “Rebeldom” centered on how alien it seemed to them in appearance, population, and most importantly, culture.[8] “lt looked desolate enough. We went into the graveyard there. It did not look as well as our graveyards do,” he continued, “I saw the graves of several of the Rebel soldiers that was killed in this war. I don't think I would like to live here very well. Everything is so different from what it is where we live.”[9]

William P. Lyon of the 8th Wisconsin Cavalry recorded a fairly detailed description of his first extensive campaign (near Pilot Knob, Missouri) and one that was severe in its condemnation. Lyon described “rugged, mountainous and sterile country” that seemed incapable to sustain decent farming, “we saw but few farms which a Wisconsin man would consider worth cultivating.”[10]

The land near Pilot Knob, narrow and broken, “underlaid with rock and [was] uncultivable,” leaving everything to be “perfectly stagnant.” The dwellings were the most awful looking log houses he had seen and in most instances there were “no barns, no carriages, no farming implements, even, of any account.” In Victorian America, especially for frontiersmen and farmers living in Wisconsin, a person of virtue was one who cultivated the land, grew crops, and lived by the rhythms of the harvest.[11] If this was not enough evidence of the South’s immoral condition, Lyon’s first interaction with the poor Southern men or women produced contempt as he had failed to meet “one who can read or write.” It was a stagnant land of ignorance as far as Lyon was concerned, where a “resident” even one of that appeared “intelligent,” but once engaged in a discussion of why they are fighting, “illustrated the ignorance of the masses.”[12]

Several days later, after having seen more settlements in Missouri, Lyon was even more convinced that the “people are very stupid, ignorant, dirty, and, of course, poor.”[13] It was no wonder that their condition would lead to the current situation where they were led by their noses to war. They were too ignorant to know otherwise.

What most Northern soldiers expected to find in the South was Southern “Chivalry,” and for the most part they found little, if any. Henry P. Strong, surgeon of the 11th Wisconsin Infantry wrote near the end of his service in 1863:

“I have yet failed to find the chivalry of the South during all my travels. It certainly cannot be among the men who carry muskets. They are so ignorant about matters involved in this struggle that any one can see they are but machines worked at the will of designing men. Ask one what he is fighting for and he is as likely to say ‘I don’t know’ as anything: he may say that he is fighting for their liberties, or fighting abolitionists perhaps, but no one has any thing like a comprehensive view of affairs.”[14]

These were not uncommon reactions by Northern soldiers as they entered the South. Honor and personal pride were important values for both Northern and Southern men; however, as soldiers from Wisconsin, Ohio, New York, and Massachusetts traveled south, what they encountered challenged their views.

Seneca B. Thrall was an educated man when he enlisted with the 13th Iowa Infantry on August 19, 1862 at the age of 32. His regiment was with Grant in central Mississippi as he geared up for his Vicksburg Campaign. Having traveled from Jefferson City, Missouri, to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, and south into Mississippi, Thrall received an education on Southern culture. They had just left Abbeville, Mississippi when he wrote home to his wife, “We begin to see how the aristocracy of the south live at home,” he noted the “fine, large, airy houses with porticoes on all sides.” The yards were magnificent and the living quarters appeared “comfortably and pleasant.” Yet all white Southerners had fled, explained Thrall, “we seldom see anyone but Negroes or women.” The men were all gone, off fighting presumably.[15]

Sergeant Henry W. Tisdale was with the 35th Massachusetts Infantry regiment. Tisdale was wounded in the thigh at the Battle of South Mountain in Maryland on the date of this letter, he wrote while recovering in a hospital. They were on the march, just days before going into battle, when he noted: “[they] Passed through wo or three small villages; these and the farm dwellings and buildings we have passed are far from equaling in style or taste those of the North, showing many of them in a dilapidated appearance, and far more whitewash than paint.” The “taint of slavery upon the land,” was everywhere he proclaimed, visible by the “thriftless and want of enterprising look of the country.”[16] Soldiers often condemned slavery as it clearly caused such idleness and destitution, even for the poor whites.

Chauncey H. Cooke grew up in the Wisconsin wilderness Buffalo County, where he lived a hard life on the frontier. Cooke was only 15 when the war broke out and did not join the 25th Wisconsin Regiment until summer of 1864 to participate in the Atlanta Campaign. Though from a fairly poor and barren area, even he was surprised by what he found in Georgia: “at sunrise [we traveled] thru a rough mountainous country …a lot of poor whites leaving the country they are a wretched looking lot they say we are the first yanks they ever saw the horses and cattle and pigs like the people driving them are the sorriest things i ever saw.”[17] Another Federal soldier wrote home, “. . . all you see is long necked, yellow skined [sic] dirty women, & filthy children. Many of them as innocent of apparel as was Adam & Eve in the days of paradise.”[18] The association of Southern white people with the color “yellow” was fairly common and points to the disassociation (with the white race as they saw it) some soldiers had in regards to poor Southerners.

As historian Reid Mitchell has noted, and perhaps most importantly, the characteristics of Northern soldiers found in the women of the South “failed to fit the model of womanhood” as they understood it.[19] Their assumptions of the petite and proper Southern woman upholding dignity and class were destroyed by the reality of the situation. Soldiers repeatedly recorded such adjectives as “vixens,” “hellcats,” and “shedevils.”[20] Soldiers complained of women as assassins and murders, sometimes commenting that though they, “never thought… [before] like shooting a women,” until encountered by the viciousness of many Southern women.[21]

One soldier as he entered Holly Springs, Arkansas, saw “streets …quite full of citizens with scowling faces, and females stood at front doors and windows, watching us pass through.”[22] These women would curse at them and sometimes spit on them. A Texas conscript noted that the reception accorded to the Union soldiers by the women in 1862 contained “but verry few vertious ones along the road we travailed. . .” There were crowds of women and the sight of a column of blue clad soldiers “was enough to scare them to do any thing but such as that was just as lots of them wanted.”[23] After a bit, these same women would begin to stiffen in their resolve, and soon after the venom of scorned Southerner pride followed. Union soldiers often left towns completely shocked by what they witnessed.”[24]

Union soldier Leander Stillwell encountered numerous times the viciousness of Southern women. He recalled them as “daggers,” and in his autobiography after the war concluded his discussion saying, “I will say here, ‘with malice towards none, and with charity for all,’ that in my entire sojourn in the South during the war, the women were found to be more intensely bitter and malignant …”[25] Southern society was one that was seen as infested with a wickedness that could only be contributed to the institution of slavery. Southern women represented that distinction in its most insidious and obvious form.

One soldier came to the conclusion that there “is undoubtedly a radical difference between the women of the two sections.” Consistently soldiers attributed the vicious nature of Southern women to “slavery and ignorance,”[26] and in their interactions with both would they develop a true sense of what they saw as an unholy and degraded society. Within this dichotomy Northern soldiers began to see the Civil War as a war against a slave culture that had to be eradicated. Union soldiers, who were willing to see slavery as it was, saw it as a “social, intellectual and moral degradation.”[27]

The more Union soldiers learned about the South and its “peculiar” institution, the more they despised and loathed it. One soldier passing through a Southern town noted a strange and shocking site, “I saw several females [his emphasis] in houses at doors or windows or in the yards that I was surprised when I noticed their hair to see that they were Negroes. Negroes? Were they Negroes?” This strange comment became clear when he continued, “They were slaves, but they were white. One in particular was standing with several Negro or Mulatto women and children in the yard of a magnificent place.” This woman, he said, held in her arms a “white babe” that she suckled and cared for. He noted, “she was a beautiful woman, I and others around me noticed her and supposed her to be the mistress, the lady of the house.”[28] But she was not the mistress. When slavery carried with it the image of whiteness, along with northern idealism and the worship of women as cherished creatures, this was the last straw. Slavery had to be stopped. Oliver Wilcox Norton was forever changed by his encounters with slavery. “I thought I hated slavery as much as possible before I came here,” recalled Norton, “but here, where I can see some of its workings, I am more than ever convinced of the cruelty and inhumanity of the system. It has not one redeeming feature.”[29]

The shock of witnessing the horror of slavery upfront and personal also deeply impacted Union soldiers. Consider this soldier’s experience recorded into his diary:

“Released another Negro from his iron yoke, and ball and chain, with which he had traveled 18 miles [to reach them]. His ear had been cut off, to mark him, and he had been well branded with the hot iron. His flesh was badly lacerated with the whip and torn by dogs…”[30]

Continuing the soldier described how he dressed the poor Negro’s wounds, but yet still he doubted he would live. The experienced, he declared, had deepened his hatred of slavery.

However, it would be negligent to imply that the journey South transformed all soldiers into loyal freedom fighters of some sort. It is doubtful that large numbers saw themselves as fighting for the Negro; they probably identified more with destroying the institution of slavery and therefore the South. Bell Irvin Wiley noted Union soldier’s animosity towards these former slaves they encountered, quoting one Indiana private who bluntly stated in 1863, “I am coming home let it be deserting or not, but if they don’t quit freeing the niggers and putting them in the north.” Finishing his tirade he informed his family, “it is very wrong to live with the niggers in freedom.”[31] Racism would have its say for a hundred more years.

Even soldiers who went to war without abolitionists points of view were nonetheless changed by their experiences. “I never thought I would,” wrote one such soldier, “but I am getting strongly in favor of arming them [Blacks], and am becoming coming so blind that I can't see why they will not make soldiers. How queer.” Indeed as just a year earlier this soldier denounced the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet after experiencing slavery and Southern culture, the soldier pronounced, “[I am] now believe in arming the negroes. The only objection I have to it is a matter of pride.”[32] One soldier writing from Georgia on September 10, 1864, wrote with indignity the plight of white slaves, “children was nearly as white as we and that three of them had a white father to think that these slave-holders buy and sell each other's bastard children is horrible she took us by the hand and bid each of us goodbye and asked god to bless us and our mothers i see and hear…”[33]

Soldier Henry W. Tisdale had a discussion with one southern plantation owner who attempted to argue that slavery was a good thing, and that poor Northern whites were not nearly as better off as enslaved blacks. Tisdale later noted, “Feel that the degradation of the whites is but a result of slavery, [his emphasis] else why is there not a similar state of things in the free states lying in the same latitude as KY.”[34] Yet another soldier who once proclaimed that “I like the Negro the father off the better,” later admitted after seeing slavery, “I have a good degree of sympathy for the slave.[35]

For some soldiers, years after the war, when reflecting back on their experiences and the actual journey and adventure, held in part the notion of accomplishment. “[As] my mind went back to that village green where I had volunteered to go out and fight,” remembered this soldier, “and maybe, win adventure.” But instead the journey proved to be more hardship than adventure. The idea of going to war against a valiant foe, for many, soon diminished as they entered the South and experienced it firsthand.[36]

The sheer fact that soldiers constantly and consistently noted, sometimes with astonishment, their encounters with Southerners as being “different” should provide some context into the mindset of Northern soldiers and that their expectations of the South were not met. A form of cognitive dissonance appears to have taken place in many instances. What soldiers witnessed did not fit neatly into their belief systems. Northern Soldiers left their homes believing that the war would be quick and that their cause was just. Why they fought for is and will be debated by future historians. But what we also need to look at and where we still have somewhat of a void in recent scholarship, is how the physical journey into the South impacted soldier’s views on not just the reasons for fighting (and re-enlisting) the war and their own motivation for doing so, but their views about the slavery, and the South as well.


Works Cited

Bearss, Edwin C. ed., The Civil War Letters of Major William G. Thompson. Fayetteville, 1966.

Byers, S.H.M. “How Men Feel in Battle.” Harper's Magazine. Harper's Magazine Co., 1906.

Emerson, Edgar C. ed., History of Lorraine, NY, From our County and Its People: A Descriptive Work on Jefferson County New York. Boston History Company, 1898.

Frank, Joseph Allen and Duteau, Barbara. “Measuring the Political Articulateness of United States Civil War Soldiers: The Wisconsin Militia,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 64, No. 1, Jan., 2000.

Glover, Robert W. “The War Letters of a Texas Conscript in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XX. Winter, 1961.

Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Kellogg, Mary E. Army Life of an Illinois Soldier: Including a Day by Day Record of Sherman's March to the Sea; Letters and Diary of the Late Charles W. Wills. Globe Printing Company, 1906.

Manning, Chandra .What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publisher, 2007.

McPherson, James M., Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

_______. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Mitchell, Reid. The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Robertson, John. “Re-enlistment Patterns of Civil War Soldiers.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xxxii:1. Summer, 2001.

Sheehan-Dean, Aaron ed., “The Blue and the Gray in Black in White.” The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 2007.

Stillwell, Leander. The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War, 1861-1865. Franklin Hudson Publishing Co., 1920.

SoldierStudies.org: Online Database Collecting Letters From Across the Web

http://www.soldierstudies.org/

Wiley, Bell Irvin . “Billy Yank and the Black Folk.” The Journal of Negro History. Vol. 36, No. 1. January, 1951.



[1]Aaron Sheehan-Dean, ed., “The Blue and the Gray in Black in White,” The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers, (Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 2007), 14.

[2] John Robertson, “Re-enlistment Patterns of Civil War Soldiers,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xxxii:1 (Summer, 2001), 15–35.

[3] For more on Union soldiers see the work of: Gerald F. Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War, (Simon and Schuster, 1989); Bell Irvin Wiley, Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (1952); Joseph T. Glatthaar, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman's Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns (Louisiana State University Press, 1995); Earl J. Hess, The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat (University Press of Kansas , 1997); James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1998); Chandra Manning, What this Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).

[4] Joseph Allen Frank and Barbara Duteau, “Measuring the Political Articulateness of United States Civil War Soldiers: The Wisconsin Militia,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 64, No. 1, (Jan., 2000), 53-77.

[5] Oliver Willcox Norton to Cousin, February 11, 1862, accessed from: http://www.soldierstudies.org/index.php?action=view_letter&Letter=729

[6] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 608.

[7] Edgar C. Emerson, ed., History of Lorraine, NY, From our County and Its People: A Descriptive Work on Jefferson County New York. (Boston History Company, 1898). Accessed from: http://history.rays-place.com/ny/lorraine-ny.htm.

[8] Chauncey H. Persons to sister, October 24, 1861, accessed from: http://www.soldierstudies.org/index.php?action=view_letter&Letter=482

[9] Chauncey H. Persons to sister, October 24, 1861, accessed from: http://www.soldierstudies.org/index.php?action=view_letter&Letter=482

[10] William P. Lyon to Racine Advocate, November 12, 1861, accessed from:

http://www.soldierstudies.org/index.php?action=view_letter&Letter=827

[11] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 44-45; James M. McPherson, Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). He has an entire chapter dedicated to the mythology of “Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism,” 3-23.

[12] William P. Lyon to Racine Advocate, November 12, 1861, accessed from:

http://www.soldierstudies.org/index.php?action=view_letter&Letter=827

[13] Ibid.

[14] Henry P. Strong to Sarah Strong, July 12, 1863, Wisconsin State Historical Archives. Author’s collection.

[15] Seneca Thrall to Wife, December 3, 1862, accessed from: http://www.soldierstudies.org/index.php?action=view_letter&Letter=957

[16] Tisdale, Henry W. diary entry, September 14, 1862, accessed from:

http://www.soldierstudies.org/index.php?action=view_letter&Letter=1196

[17] Chauncey H. Cooke, May 10, 1864, accessed from: http://www.soldierstudies.org/index.php?action=view_letter&Letter=1039

[18] William G. Thompson to "Dear Wife," October 14, 1862. Found in Edwin C. Bearss, ed., The Civil War Letters of Major William G. Thompson. (Fayetteville, 1966), 38.

[19] Reid Mitchell, The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) 97, 100.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 98-99.

[22] Seneca Thrall to Wife, December 3, 1862, accessed from: http://www.soldierstudies.org/index.php?action=view_letter&Letter=957

[23] W. E. Stoker to I. E. Stoker, undated letter fragment, about fall, 1862, found in Robert W. Glover, "The War Letters of a Texas Conscript in Arkansas," Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XX (Winter, 1961), 364.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Leander Stillwell, The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War, 1861-1865. (Franklin Hudson Publishing Co., 1920), 83-84

[26] Reid Mitchell, The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 94-95.

[27] Chandra Manning’s recent scholarship on Civil War soldiers and slavery neatly outlines how they saw the war in terms of a war against slavery. See Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publisher, 2007), for quote see pages, 48-49.

[28] Seneca Thrall to Wife, December 3, 1862, accessed from: http://www.soldierstudies.org/index.php?action=view_letter&Letter=957

[29] W.O. Norton to Cousin, January 28, 1862, accessed from: http://www.soldierstudies.org/index.php?action=view_letter&Letter=725

[30] Bell Irvin Wiley, “Billy Yank and the Black Folk,” The Journal of Negro History. Vol. 36, No. 1. (January, 1951.), 42

[31] Ibid., 38.

[32]Charles Wright Wills letter, Jackson, Tenn., June 26, 1863. Charles Wright Wills, Mary E. Kellogg, Letters compiled by Mary E. Kellogg, Army Life of an Illinois Soldier: Including a Day by Day Record of Sherman's March to the Sea; Letters and Diary of the Late Charles W. Wills. (Globe Printing Company, 1906), 184

[33] Chauncey H. Cooke to his Sister, September 10, 1864, accessed from: http://www.soldierstudies.org/index.php?action=view_letter&Letter=1055

[34] Tisdale, Henry W. diary entry, August 22, 1863, accessed from:

http://www.soldierstudies.org/index.php?action=view_letter&Letter=1201

[35] Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publisher, 2007), as quoted on page 50.

[36] S.H.M. Byers, “How Men Feel in Battle,” Harper's Magazine. (Harper's Magazine Co., 1906)

www.soldierstudies.org