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The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 55, Number 2, June 2009
pp. 307-309 | 10.1353/cwh.0.0051

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One of the intriguing facts about the Civil War was the outpouring of accounts by soldiers themselves. Volunteers in both armies were remarkably literate, and the majority of them felt the need to record in some manner what they were doing. When the bloodletting stopped, many veterans continued to write about their experiences privately, but also publicly, and much of those texts remain preserved today.

Historians have, of course, mined those records extensively, but as Aaron Sheehan-Dean notes in this important new collection, only recently have scholars begun to see common soldiers as active agents worthy of study in their own right. The View from the Ground offers readers a look at some of the most cutting-edge scholarship on Civil War soldiers, demonstrating how far the field has progressed since the pioneering work of historian Bell Wiley in the 1940s and 1950s.

Religion and race are significant themes throughout the volume. David W. Rolfs and Kent T. Dollar show the importance of Christianity to the men in the ranks and how war tried and tested their faith but did not always destroy it. Chandra Manning, acutely aware of change over time, argues that Union soldiers' views toward emancipation and race were hardly static and had as much to do with an individual's situation as with a genuine belief that freeing slaves was a necessary military means to end the war.

Two authors also explore the vital intersection of home front and battlefront. Lisa Laskin's fascinating piece on the Army of Northern Virginia both bolsters and challenges other scholars who have debated just how influential civilian morale was to the Confederate cause. Laskin finds a core group of Lee's proud and loyal veterans extremely disheartened by civilian disaffection late in the war. Timothy J. Orr, in a similar vein, examines Pennsylvania soldiers' affiliation to the Republican party and their efforts to silence Peace Democrats at home. We see in both these essays soldiers just as concerned with the enemy in the front as with the perceived enemy at home.

Of course there was a real foe to fight, and Jason Phillips masterfully illustrates the raw hatred Confederates felt toward Yankees. Phillips contends that the cheery stories of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank fraternizing across enemy lines were, in fact, postwar creations, rarely expressed as the conflict raged.

Kevin M. Levin further reminds us that Confederates did not merely fight abhorrent Yankees and or even civilians at home; after the war they warred with each other over its the "true" history. In a closely focused piece on the Battle of the Crater, Levin examines contrasting versions of that fight to discover how and why Virginians staked the greatest claim to one of the Confederate's last victories in the east.

Charles E. Brooks argues that "popular sovereignty" was uniquely ingrained in the minds of the 4th Texas so much so that they sought to oust their colonel, a man they perceived as arrogant and unsuited for command. Brooks contends that these Texans, exceptionally infused with stern individualism, would not be led by anyone who thought himself above them. But nearly all volunteers bitterly resented officers and refused to endure the sufferings of military life or the dangers of combat. Were these Texans so abnormal? Brooks further attempts to separate slavery from race by downplaying the role of slavery in motivating white Texans, or any white southerners, in supporting the Confederacy, an argument that seems jarringly out of date in a book that includes the sophisticated scholarship by Manning, Phillips, and Levin—who recognize the complex racial attitudes of white nineteenth-century Americans, North and South.

Joseph Glatthaar's brief afterword affirms again how far scholarship on common soldiers has progressed since Walt Whitman's oft-cited lament that the "real war would never get into the books." But Glatthaar also blasts historians for being "ahistorical" in failing to view soldiers in proper context by plucking them out of their prewar lives and abruptly ending studies of them at Appomattox (252).

Most of the contributors to this volume, however, take the long view, considering their subject's changing identity from civilian to soldier to veteran, recognizing that each...