The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers

The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers

The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers

The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers

Synopsis

Civil War scholars have long used soldiers' diaries and correspondence to flesh out their studies of the conflict's great officers, regiments, and battles. However, historians have only recently begun to treat the common Civil War soldier's daily life as a worthwhile topic of discussion in its own right. The View from the Ground reveals the beliefs of ordinary men and women on topics ranging from slavery and racism to faith and identity and represents a significant development in historical scholarship -- the use of Civil War soldiers' personal accounts to address larger questions about America's past. Aaron Sheehan-Dean opens The View from the Ground by surveying the landscape of research on Union and Confederate soldiers, examining not only the wealth of scholarly inquiry in the 1980s and 1990s but also the numerous questions that remain unexplored. Chandra Manning analyzes the views of white Union soldiers on slavery and their enthusiastic support for emancipation. Jason Phillips uncovers the deep antipathy of Confederate soldiers toward their Union adversaries, and Lisa Laskin explores tensions between soldiers and civilians in the Confederacy that represented a serious threat to the fledgling nation's survival. Essays by David Rolfs and Kent Dollar examine the nature of religious faith among Civil War combatants. The grim and gruesome realities of warfare -- and the horror of killing one's enemy at close range -- profoundly tested the spiritual convictions of the fighting men. Timothy J. Orr, Charles E. Brooks, and Kevin Levin demonstrate that Union and Confederate soldiers maintained their political beliefs both on the battlefield and in the war's aftermath. Orr details the conflict between Union soldiers and Northern antiwar activists in Pennsylvania, and Brooks examines a struggle between officers and the Fourth Texas Regiment. Levin contextualizes political struggles among Southerners in the 1880s and 1890s as a continuing battle kept alive by memories of, and identities associated with, their wartime experiences. The View from the Ground goes beyond standard histories that discuss soldiers primarily in terms of campaigns and casualties. These essays show that soldiers on both sides were authentic historical actors who willfully steered the course of the Civil War and shaped subsequent public memory of the event.

Excerpt

Confederate soldier George Washington Miley spent the first months of 1864 exchanging letters with his future wife, Tirzah Amelia Baker. Confined to the south bank of Virginia’s Rapidan River and facing Union soldiers across the water, Miley lamented his continued presence in the army and his absence from loved ones, especially during the just-passed Christmas season. Baker recounted activities in their community and anticipated Miley’s return on furlough. However, after reenlisting for the duration of the war and recognizing that a furlough was unlikely, Miley paused to consider what record might be left of his service. “Three years, I can scarcely reconcile myself to the truth—think of happy schoolday hours—they appear as but yesterday,” he wrote. “Think of the scenes, the trials we have all witnessed and experienced, it appears to be an age since they began. Three long years … lost and even forgotten by many.” Miley’s lament—that civilians had forgotten the rigors and sacrifices of soldiers’ experiences—was a common refrain among veterans on both sides of the conflict. Equally troubling was the suspicion that history itself would ignore their contributions to the war effort. Despite soldiers’ meticulous recording of their actions, preserved in hundreds of thousands of letters and diaries, most believed that a true record of their service would never be written.

Miley’s concern was well founded. For many years, scholars of the Civil War paid little attention to soldiers as individuals. Historians mined diaries and letters, but that material was rarely used to frame explanations of the war that soldiers would have recognized. Over the last twenty years, however, scholars have rediscovered the trials of soldiers. They have sought to understand both the “deeds” and the “passions” (to quote Walt Whitman) of the men who fought the war. What did they believe about the conflict? Did those beliefs change over the course of the war? What actions did they take as a result of those beliefs? How did prewar attitudes shape wartime behavior? And, conversely, did wartime experiences fundamentally alter soldiers’ views of the world?

Miley might be surprised to find that there is a whole subfield of scholarship in soldier studies today, but he would surely appreciate . . .

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