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“Cowardice Weakness or Infirmity, Whichever It May Be Termed”: A Shadow History of the Civil War

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 492-526 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0074

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While historians of the Civil War have touched on the topic in the course of exploring other matters, they have paid little attention to cowardice itself. In this, they are in good company. The subject of cowardice has been honored mostly with evasion. No scholar of any period has written a book devoted to it. A decade ago, having already published books about humiliation and disgust, William Ian Miller set out to complete a trilogy of studies of human lowness with a book about cowardice. He found that he could not do it. His intended subject “gave way,” he wrote; “that’s what cowardice always does.” The book Miller did publish is titled instead The Mystery of Courage.

This gap in the secondary literature results in part from a gap in primary sources. Max Hastings writes that in his long career as a military historian, “no U.S. or British regimental war diary that I have ever seen explicitly admits that soldiers fled in panic, as of course they sometimes do.” Richard Gabriel notes that “accounts of past battles seem so often to offer examples of individual heroism and courage and all too seldom report acts of cowardice and fear.” As Virgil puts it in Dante’s Inferno, “The world will let no fame of [cowards] endure,” and even he, the guide through literature’s great tour of sin and baseness, says he does not want to discuss the numberless cowards who dwell just inside Hell’s gate. “Let us not talk of them,” he tells Dante.

Courage gets the press. Certainly this has been the case in Civil War studies. In The Life of Johnny Reb, Bell Wiley observed that “those who have written and talked about the Confederate Army” have not had much to say about cowardice, it “being a less gratifying subject than heroism.” The same holds true of those who have written about the Union side. It is not only because courage is more “gratifying” than cowardice that it draws our attention: there is also a consensus that during the Civil War courage was much more common than cowardice. I have no wish to contest this view. Courageous acts were no doubt more common than cowardly ones, and we are naturally interested in exploring what the war was over, what soldiers fought for, and what they aspired to. Cause and comrades, states’ rights, and slavery all deserve the focus they receive, as do the other demographic, economic, social, and political factors that shaped the conflict.

But there was also something beneath or behind the war, in the backs of men’s minds, driving them forward—or at least keeping them from fleeing. The combat theorist S. L. A. Marshall noted that most men feel fear on the battlefield, but also that they “are commonly loath that their fear will be expressed in specific acts which their comrades will recognize as cowardice. The majority are unwilling to take extraordinary risks and do not aspire to a hero’s role, but they are equally unwilling that they should be considered the least worthy among those present.” Certainly this was true of the American Civil War. During battle, it was not ideology or a desire for glory that made men attack a fortification or hold their position when under assault. “The force that compelled them,” as Bell Wiley put it, “above all else, was the thought of family and friends and the unwillingness to be branded cowards.” They worried about cowardice more than they aspired to courage, and this worry seemed to root more deeply in them than aspiration did. When soldiers measured themselves in battle, Gerald Linderman observes, “negative results brought damnation (‘Was I to run and prove myself a coward?’) much more readily than positive results brought certainty to oneself or others that one was a soldier of courage.”

In fact, cowardice and courage seem to have a kind of synergistic relationship, even to the point that the former could be said to cause the latter. Union soldier Jonathan Stowe recalled charging “forward with a rush lest your pride taunt you of cowardice.” In his study of the motivation of Civil War soldiers, James M. McPherson observes...



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