A Tale of Two Armies: The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac and Their Cultures

By Glatthaar, Joseph T. | The Journal of Civil War Era, September 2016 | Go to article overview

A Tale of Two Armies: The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac and Their Cultures


Glatthaar, Joseph T., The Journal of Civil War Era


Every organization or institution develops a culture, and armies are no different. The culture of an army is important because it determines and influences proper and improper conduct individually and collectively. It imposes standards and expectations that affect how persons and groups react to crises, how they behave on the campaigns and in camp, and how they fight, among other things. (1)

The culture that emerged in the Army of Northern Virginia was distinct from that of the Army of the Potomac. What dictated the development of that culture was the background of the soldiers; the training and regimentation that their officers imposed, particularly early in the war; and their formative experiences in combat and on the march. Once that culture took hold, it was extremely hard to break or alter, and it shaped the course and outcome of the war.

To understand the formulation and impact of those cultures on the war, I am going to utilize quantitative as well as qualitative data. Half a century ago, a shift toward the influences of social science on the discipline of history and the development of the computer sparked historians to dabble in a sophisticated use of statistics. Within two decades, however, the field was largely dismissed. Many historians were completely intimidated by numbers and refused to embrace them, while others found quantitative studies either tedious reading or insensitive to the hardships and brutality of the past. (2)

Over the past couple of decades, many social scientists have recognized the limitations of pure numbers and have added qualitative evidence, the kind most historians use, to their studies. Historians, too, have begun to embrace digital history, which the American Historical Association defines as "scholarship that is either produced using computational tools and methods or presented using digital technologies." (3) Most of that work has relied on computers and software to present scholarship with digital technologies, particularly the exploration of geospatial relationships, which provide powerful insights into networks, neighborhoods, and pathways of communications. Yet historians have lagged in the first part of the definition, scholarship that is produced using computational tools and methods. (4)

This study seeks to employ statistics along with some choice traditional historical evidence to compare two of the principal armies of the Civil War, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and the cultures that developed. (5) It will not focus on the generals or the politicians; rather, it will revolve around the background and experiences of the officers and enlisted men of both armies, who are to my mind the most intriguing subjects to investigate. As one man in the Army of Northern Virginia wrote home, "Common soldiers by name, however, are often times very uncommon--like common sense." (6) These statistics will give us insights into the prewar lives of the soldiers and help answer questions such as why they served, what kind of culture developed in each army, and how that culture affected Union victory and Confederate defeat.

The evidence for this talk comes from more traditional sources, published and unpublished official reports and communications, letters, diaries, and even memoirs. But the critical source--the statistics--comes from two stratified cluster samples, one on the Army of Northern Virginia and the other on the Army of the Potomac. The sample for the Army of Northern Virginia consists of 600 soldiers selected randomly: 150 artillerymen, 150 cavalrymen, and 300 infantrymen. Sample units in the Army of Northern Virginia represented all Confederate states plus Maryland and Kentucky. Data from individual soldiers was weighted based on his branch and the branch's percentage within the army. Information for the sample came from Compiled Service Records, Census Records, pension files, obituaries, family histories, and other sources, much of it now available on the internet. …

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