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

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

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. …

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