The Hardening Effect from Combat on Civil War Soldiers

Written on:May 2, 2011
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The process of “hardening” (via the experience of battle over a period of time) has been analyzed by historians and interpreted in several different ways. James M. McPherson saw the stress (combat fatigue) of combat as a breaking down of the soldier’s senses (“the nerve to endure”) thus subduing the awareness to suffering. That though they saw horrible things, they could rise above it and McPherson stressed the importance of courage and motivation as major contributions to a soldier’s constitution. (1) Of course Gerald R. Linderman saw the impact of hardening as a form of “disillusionment” for the soldier and evidence that the ideological fabric of their Victorian values were breaking down, if not completely diminished. (2) However, Earl J. Hess probably does the best job with his analysis of the “hardening” that soldiers experienced. The process of “learning of war” involved what Hess called “crossing over,” which was the process where they “acclimate their senses and emotions” by crossing over an emotional “gulf” that separated soldiers from their civilian sensitivities (3). This process does not mean that they became any less patriotic or that their value systems had broken down.

A horrific yet poignant depiction of this “hardening” nature of a combat soldier can be seen in Forty-six months with the Fourth R. I. volunteers, by Corp. George H. Allen. Specifically a passage where he describes in detail his understanding of the “heart-hardened” solider.

By these minor details are shown the beauties of siege life, and it will be seen to what severe and dangerous duties we were at all times subject. We had lost, up to this time, twenty-five men killed or wounded in twenty days; and all around us other regiments were suffering in like manner. By being accustomed to sights which would make other men’s hearts sick to behold, our men soon became heart-hardened, and sometimes scarcely gave a pitying thought to those who were unfortunate enough to get hit. Men can get accustomed to everything; and the daily sight of blood and mangled bodies so blunted their finer sensibilities as almost to blot out all love, all sympathy from the heart, and to bring more into prominence the baser qualities of man, selfishness, greed, and revenge.

As an illustration of this condition I cite one case that came within my own observation.

One afternoon, two of the stretcher bearers brought out of the covered ways a man who had been fatally wounded, and setting down their stretcher near a small group of mounds, just above our camp on the hill, they began to dig his grave. From their actions I perceived the man was not yet dead, and went up to watch them. After digging a hole about a foot deep, they lit their pipes and sat down to smoke and talk over matters, and wait for him to die.

They betrayed not the least sense of emotion or feeling for the poor wretch who lay there before them, gasping in the agonies of death, and when he had breathed his last, roughly tipped him over into the hole, and covering him with a fewshovelsful of earth, picked up their stretcher and went back into the pits for the next one.

Such scenes were common, and few there were that were killed here that got more than a blanket for a coffin, or as much as a prayer over their burial. And yet all this lack of sympathy was without malice, and but the result of living night and day within the “valley of the shadow of death.”

1 -James McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford Press, 1997) 43-45, 163-169.
2 – Gerald E. Linderman, Embattled Courage The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (New York: Free Press, 1987), 240-241.
3- Earl J. Hess, The Union Soldier in Battle (U of Kansas Press, 1997), 4-9.

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