"Tell Me What the Sensations
Are": The Northern Home Front
Learns about Combat
Earl J. Hess
THE EXPERIENCE of combat in the Civil War was so different from anything the soldiers had seen in their civilian life that a yawning gulf of experience opened up to separate the army from the home front. Soldiers knew from their first encounter with battle what it was like to experience war. They heard the whistle of artillery and the singing of small arms fire; they saw the billowing smoke and the torn, mutilated bodies of comrades; they smelled the burning powder, the fresh odor of blood, and the rotting corpses on the battlefield; and they felt the physical sensations of near misses by Minié balls and the shocking pain of getting hit. No soldier had to wonder what it was like to be under fire after he had made the initial crossing over the gulf of experience, which was a rite of passage for the naive recruit.1
But what of the civilians left behind? Were soldiers the only ones who could know what it was like to be in battle? Were they the only ones in northern society who cared to learn what it was like? A great many if not the majority of northern civilians doubtless never bothered to ponder these questions. They were separated from the battle experience in the most basic way, and they probably were quite happy to ignore it. The North's large population meant that comparatively few northerners would be called on to join the army, and the fact that most of the fighting took place on southern soil meant that they could afford to continue life much as usual while the conflict raged. For many northern civilians, it was almost as if the war was
1 Earl J. Hess, The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat (Law-
rence: University Press of Kansas, 1997), 19–21.