Lincoln and his “thinking bayonets,” Union Soldiers in the Civil War

Written on:April 24, 2011
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In the Soldier Studies: Civil War Soldier Series, Chandra M. Manning posed the question, “Can Soldiers Tell Us Anything about Lincoln?” Manning does a fine job analyzing Lincoln’s influence on Northern soldiers, whom as she noted, he affectionately called his “thinking bayonets.” What motivated both Confederate and Federal soldiers to fight has been addressed admirably by noted historians (James McPherson, Gerald Linderman, Reid Mitchell, Earl J. Hess, Randall Jimerson, and others). Each side had a knowledge of the cause as they understood it, and were fighting to defend those ideals and convictions. Manning’s book What This Cruel War Was Over (New York: Knopf, 2007) is in my opinion as strong an argument for the importance of slavery as the cause of the war as there is — certainly as a point of contention and motivation for soldiers.

As Manning noted in “Can Soldiers Tell Us Anything about Lincoln?,” Lincoln’s “thinking bayonets” were ahead of the curve on the issue of slavery. Lincoln had political and constitutional concerns that did not allow him to emphatically reject slavery as early as the soldiers did noting, “throughout the rank-and-file, enlisted soldiers reasoned that only elimination of the war’s cause would end the rebellion and prevent its recurrence.”

In our SS database I will continue to pull out what I hope are valuable nuggets that some of you can use. These will be posted under the Lincoln’s “Thinking Bayonets” heading. My first one deals with a James W. Hildebrand (139th regiment, PA., Volunteer Infantry) who responded to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in a letter home to his father. After bemoaning the “draftee” soldier he begins a poignant rant about the “Negro War.”

Tell me one soldier that calls this a Negro War I would like to know him and have some acquaintance with him. The soldiers all say here that this proclamation issued by the President last winter was for the better off. How dumb the people are. If they could get their eyes open once and see clearly.

To read the entire letter

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