- Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War by Brian Steel Wills
In October 1864, Union army chaplain George Knox mounted a borrowed horse. When he pulled the reins, the horse reacted harshly to the army bit, reared, then fell backward, landing on the chaplain. Knox suffered severe damage to his head and legs. After enduring intense pain for a couple of days, Knox died. One of the soldiers in his unit recounted in his diary, "Mr. Knox is dead. . . . At night I lay down feeling more sad than I have for many days. God knows the future" (119).
As Brian Steel Wills's new volume makes plain, such deaths were painfully commonplace during the Civil War. Soldiers died when artillery misfired, or when they got drunk and fought. Others were hit by lightning, drowned while bathing, mangled in train accidents. Men died of chronic diarrhea and were shot by their own comrades—sometimes accidentally, sometimes purposefully. Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War details the many, many ways American soldiers, both Union and Confederate, died that had nothing to do with combat. In addition, Wills incorporates the deaths of civilians, horses, livestock, and even regimental mascots into his accounting of lives lost during the conflict. Through hundreds of examples, Wills argues that "a greater understanding [End Page 159] of the enormous toll of the war on the lives of participants associated with it would be possible" (17).
Historians have long recognized that most soldier mortality did not come from battle, but this book represents the first full-length study of noncombat deaths. As such, it joins a growing field of scholarship that attempts to expand the parameters of the war, from the refugee crisis that it created to the far-reaching bodily and psychological impact it had on those who lived through it. Wills reminds us that war creates havoc that, once unleashed, is hard to control. Conducting a war meant not only facing the enemy on the battlefield, but living with animals, navigating railways and waterways, coping with physical exhaustion and exposure to the elements on the march and in camp, and conflict with comrades. And for those not in uniform, bullets and mortars could stray into domestic spaces and places of work could burst into flame. War created an unsafe environment for everyone.
The sense that the war ushered in an age in which anything could happen to anyone is clear in the many stories that Wills has accumulated in this text. The book consists of ten thematic chapters, each focusing on a general category of death. Some are specific, such as chapter 3, which deals with train-related deaths, while others, like chapter 1, which covers deaths that happened in the first months of the war, are quite broad. The book is an enjoyable read. Wills is a good storyteller, and he does an admirable job of presenting the many sad tales included in the text with both humanity and energy, crafting a compelling story without forgetting that the actors in them were all real people who met tragic fates.
While Inglorious Passages is an interesting addition to the scholarship, it does not offer much analytical depth. Wills demonstrates that Americans died outside the bounds of the battlefield with the vast number of stories he has compiled, but what all those stories represent, or what average Americans made of them, is not clear. Just what Americans thought about the human toll of the war has been the topic of much historiographical debate in recent years, and Wills's sources suggest that there is still much to learn. Drew Gilpin Faust's claim in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008) that Victorian Americans were disturbed by the war's desecration of the "good death" seems particularly relevant here. The deaths that Wills recounts would certainly have been considered "bad" deaths—random, senseless, often messy and unruly. Battle deaths were disconcerting, but at least they carried the redemptive power of...