The Sentimental Soldier in Popular Civil War Literature, 1861-65

By Fahs, Alice | Civil War History, June 2000 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Sentimental Soldier in Popular Civil War Literature, 1861-65


Fahs, Alice, Civil War History


These Hospitals, so different from all others--these thousands, and tens of twenties of thousands of American young men, badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia, etc., open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet, showing our humanity (I sometimes put myself in fancy in the cot, with typhoid, or under the knife) tried by terrible, fearfulest tests, probed deepest, the living soul's, the body's tragedies, bursting the petty bonds of art. To these, what are your dramas and poems, even the oldest and tearfulest?

--Walt Whitman

"OH! IT IS great for our country to die," began a poem published in the Boston Transcript on May 28, 1861; "Bright is the wreath of our fame; glory awaits us for aye." "It is well--it is well thus to die in my youth,/A martyr to freedom and justice and truth!" proclaimed the narrator of the October 1861 Southern Monthly poem "The Dying Soldier."(1) At the start of the Civil War, numerous popular poems and songs both North and South offered variations on the classical adage dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, imagining the subordination of individual interests to the needs of the nation.(2) Diarists, too, approvingly noted the patriotic sentiments of such literature: Caroline Cowle Richards of Canandaigua, New York, for instance, reported in May 1861 that it seemed "very patriotic and grand" to hear departing soldiers singing "`It is sweet, Oh, 'tis sweet, for one's country to die.'"(3)

Yet by 1862, and then in increasing numbers as battle deaths mounted during 1863 and 1864, popular poems and songs that asserted the importance and individuality of the ordinary soldier acted as a counterpoint to literature that stressed the subordination of individual interests to the needs of country. Hundreds of sentimental stories, songs, and poems focused intently on the individual experiences of the ordinary soldier on the battlefield and in the hospital, especially imagining that soldier's thoughts at the moment of death. As the mass movements of armies increasingly defined the war, and the outcome of battle was increasingly mass slaughter, an outpouring of sentimental literature fought against the idea of the mass, instead singling out the individual soldier as an icon of heroism.

An examination of wartime sentimental soldier literature, part of an extensive popular war literature that both explored and shaped the meanings of the war, forces a reassessment of a long-lived paradigm of the cultural history of the war. In 1965 George M. Fredrickson wrote in The Inner Civil War, his influential study of Northern intellectuals and their responses to the war, that during the war "a process of natural selection was occurring which was giving more relevance to impersonal efficiency than to pity or compassion." At the same time, because "there were clear limitations to what could actually be accomplished for the relief of the wounded and dying, a stoical and fatalistic sense of the inevitability of large-scale suffering was also being inculcated. Implicit in both developments was a challenge to those antebellum humanitarians who believed that sympathy was the noblest of emotions and that all suffering for which human beings could be held responsible was unacceptable and called for immediate relief."(4) In Fredrickson's account, Northern intellectuals during the war turned away from the anti-institutionalism of the antebellum era to embrace new values of centralization and organization within American life.

Fredrickson provided an acute analysis of the experiences of many Northern intellectuals, especially those who sought to organize the care of wounded soldiers under the auspices of the Sanitary Commission. But while he confined his analysis to a small but influential group of intellectuals, other writers have assumed that a new adherence to ideologies of impersonal efficiency, centralization, organization, and consolidation characterized a wide swath of Northern culture during and after the war.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Sentimental Soldier in Popular Civil War Literature, 1861-65
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?