The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research

By Robin Higham; Steven E. Woodworth | Go to book overview
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a threat to representative democracy, the best hope of humanity, the desire to punish treason was strong. Union soldiers were deeply divided over the emancipation proclamation, and war weariness was significant. But just like their Confederate counterparts, they continued to fight not only because of the bonding that mutual suffering had generated but also because the ideological principles remained important to them. Ironically, a shared racism during the postwar period led veterans of both sides to downplay the significance of slavery as a factor during the war.


Work on the common soldier represents some of the best in Civil War scholarship. It includes as well a wealth of books and articles outside the scope of this chapter, devoted to the minutiae of soldier life. Thanks to the passion of collectors, reenactors, and Civil War buffs generally, astonishingly meticulous studies exist on almost every item Johnny Reb or Billy Yank wore, ate, carried, shot, rode, read, sang, slept in, sat on, or grumbled about. The four volumes of Lord Francis A. Civil War Collector's Encyclopedia ( 1965- 1995) and numerous other works testify to the continued popularity of studying the material culture of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank.

As overviews, the books by McCarthy, Billings, Wiley, and Robertson are not likely to be surpassed. Glatthaar and Daniel, however, remind us of the dangers of generalization, for Sherman's boys had their own character, and the Army of Tennessee was not the Army of Northern Virginia. More analysis of individual armies is in order, and as in so much else, the trans-Mississippi remains the most neglected area.

But additional studies of military subgroups will be truly significant only if they go beyond tin cups and cartridge boxes to explore issues of ideology, character, behavior, morale, and motivation. Objectivity is difficult. For example, historians who downplay ideology and emphasize small unit cohesion as combat motivators may be influenced by post-Vietnam cynicism. They may even be reading back into the past patterns of behavior that were first identified by historians studying veterans of World War II. Conversely, those who argue that Civil War soldiers sacrificed their lives because of deep ideological commitment may be reacting in some fashion to the apparent failure of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the increasingly shallow, self-centered, and materialistic America of the 1980s and 1990s. Wasn't there, they seem to suggest, a time when people cared? This ongoing debate provides the richest vein for those who wish to sift one more time through the hundreds of thousands of letters, diaries, and reminiscences that constitute our legacy from the common soldier of the Civil War.


Barton Michael. Goodmen: The Character of Civil War Soldiers. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981.


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