- Coming to Terms with Civil War Military History
On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address to a crowd that had gathered despite drenching rains earlier in the day. The president and his audience understood that Union victory almost certainly lay just ahead. As the fourth anniversary of the outbreak of war approached, 2 million men had shouldered muskets in U.S. armies. Casualties among these soldiers—dead, wounded, and taken prisoner— surpassed eight hundred thousand. Lincoln left no doubt about the important role U.S. armies had played. “The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself,” he said in language revealing the direct connection between military campaigns and civilian morale, “and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.” In a message to the Confederate Congress on May 2, 1864, Jefferson Davis similarly had referred to the ties between the military and civilian spheres. “The army which has borne the trials and dangers of the war; which has been subjected to privations and disappointments,” he stated, “. . . has been the centre of cheerfulness and hope.” As the conflict ground toward its conclusion in the spring of 1865, perhaps as many as 900,000 of the Confederacy’s approximately 1.1 million military-age white men had served, of whom more than 650,000 had perished, been wounded, or sent to Union prison camps.1
While both presidents and nearly all nineteenth-century Americans avowed the centrality of military affairs and experienced daily interconnection between war front and home front, academic historians who study the Civil War have in recent decades retreated further and further from investigating what the generation that experienced the conflict would have considered mainline military topics. They tend either to favor the home front or to minimize the importance of field armies and large-scale engagements. 2 While amateur enthusiasts of the Civil War remain entranced by the traditional—generals, storied national armies, battles, and soldiers in the ranks—academics seldom value the expertise required to probe any [End Page 487] except the last of these topics (and only some aspects of it). As Civil War historians concede conventional military affairs to the popular realm, we ought to consider how this shift affects our understanding of the war as scholars as well as our relationship with the public.3
It is worth noting here that neither of this essay’s authors works in traditional military history. Our recent scholarship has concentrated on the environment, memory, links between civilians and troops, the nature of loyalty and national sentiment, and Union and Confederate ideology. We do not favor turning back the clock to a time when the literature included relatively few titles on nonmilitary topics and too often ignored ties between home front and battlefield. We believe expansion of the field over the past thirty years has made it far stronger, infusing it with a vibrancy and spaciousness that beckons young scholars of all kinds. We also believe it essential, however, to preserve the story of the conventional war that was so important to Americans of the time and remains important to our understanding them and their experiences.4
In terms of achieving understanding, we should remind ourselves that the wartime generation knew things historians should deem fundamental to grasping the full meaning of the conflict. For example, they knew, and historians should know, the difference between professional soldiers (regulars), federal volunteers, and members of state militias—and that the second category, the citizen-soldiers of the United States and the Confederacy, composed the overwhelming majority of those mustered by both combatants. They should know as well that an absolute majority of all soldiers who served both nations were true volunteers, men who entered service before conscription and whose sense of belonging to a republican tradition of citizen-soldiers meant a great deal and profoundly shaped how civilians viewed them and their service. Armies of citizen-soldiers formed part of a deep-rooted tradition suspicious of professional arms; for that reason, the huge military forces of the Civil War never should be...