The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army

The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army

The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army

The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army

Excerpt

Abraham Lincoln once termed the American Civil War “a people’s contest.” In contrast to European wars of empire waged by kings and aristocrats, Lincoln believed, it was the northern people who fought the war through democratic institutions to save the world’s only true republic. The most important institution that fought Lincoln’s “people’s contest” was the Union Army, a citizen army composed of millions of volunteers and draftees whose numbers dwarfed the small band of regular soldiers and West Point– trained officers. The Union Army in the Civil War was northern society in miniature, reflecting its culture and values and imbued with its strengths and weaknesses.

The Union Army, like the society from which it sprang, was cohesive enough to face many desperate hours and to emerge triumphant after four long years of war. But social divisions rent the army just as they did the republic for which it was fighting. Conflicts related to class differences and to competing conceptions of manhood pervaded its institutional life and the daily interactions of its officers and privates. In the Union Army, an educated, refined, morally sensitive, and wealthy twenty-year-old lieutenant could find himself commanding a hard-drinking group of prizefighters from the north’s lowest social class. For the army to fight effectively, it had to overcome tensions in the ranks born out of the many cleavages within northern society—tensions that often erupted into violence and threatened to destroy the basic discipline necessary for fighting. Sometimes, the shared experience of war brought men together. Sometimes, men found that army life revealed differences, exacerbated distinctions, and created conflicts among the very “people” engaged in the great contest for national unity.

When Thomas P. Southwick, an employee of the Third Avenue Railway Company in New York City, decided to volunteer for the Union Army, he sought a regiment “composed entirely of gentleman’s sons.” To his disappoint-

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