- Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat by Jonathan M. Steplyk
Over the last three decades, Civil War scholars have expanded considerably historians' understanding of the war's soldiers, shifting the focus from political and military leaders to the war's common soldiers. Many of these studies explore the lives of Civil War soldiers and engage questions of motivation, thereby creating a vibrant, ongoing debate in the historiography. The focus on soldier motivation has left some subjects of the war's soldiers wide open. Few historians, for instance, have addressed the Civil War's most fundamental element: how soldiers understood fighting and killing. In Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat, Jonathan M. Steplyk, an instructor at Texas Christian University, explores how Union and Confederate soldiers understood killing. In doing so, Steplyk offers an invaluable contribution to the Civil War literature.
Although Steplyk's monograph is the first to explore Civil War soldiers' attitudes toward killing, military historians have engaged this topic in other conflicts. S. L. A. Marshall, for example, has studied the behavior of U.S. infantrymen in combat in World War II. Dave Grossman's On Killing (Boston, 1995) explores the psychology of killing and its consequences. Using Grossman's [End Page 457] framework as a point of departure, Steplyk argues that Union and Confederate soldiers demonstrated a "greater willingness in their attitudes and behavior to kill in battle than previously supposed" (p. 8).
Rather than explore soldiers' attitudes toward killing in a binary way—those who embraced the act of killing in war and those who opposed it—Steplyk considers Civil War soldiers' attitudes toward killing on a spectrum. Indeed, attitudes toward killing were far from monolithic, and Steplyk skillfully examines a range of behaviors in combat and reactions to "seeing the elephant" (chap. 2). In doing so, he finds some soldiers to be "enthusiastic and purposeful killers," while others proved more reluctant, and some even tried to avoid killing the enemy (p. 75). Steplyk explores acts of "murder and mercy" beyond the fighting and killing on the war's battlefields, when soldiers were forced to grapple with lawful and unlawful killings (chap. 6). For example, Steplyk underscores acts of soldiers' restraining themselves from wanton killing. These acts included the merciful treatment of prisoners and the wounded as well as fraternization between Union and Confederate soldiers. The other end of the spectrum included non-battlefield killings. Here, situations such as the execution of foraging soldiers or revenge killings forced soldiers to consider laws of warfare and unlawful killings.
Soldiers' wartime correspondence reveals much about their attitudes toward killing. In evaluating the "language of killing," Steplyk finds that Civil War soldiers used a variety of expressions and phrases to describe combat and killing (chap. 3). Euphemisms such as "bite the dust" and stating that a man had gone to his "long home" were popular expressions in soldiers' correspondence (p. 78). In constructing the "language of killing," Steplyk argues, soldiers built "a way to protect them [selves] from any guilt or anxiety they might feel in regard to killing in combat" (p. 76). When describing fierce firefights, soldiers commonly wrote of a "good execution," "murderous fire," and "deliberate aim" (pp. 83, 84). Steplyk suggests that this terminology allowed soldiers to develop a "businesslike attitude" toward combat and killing (p. 83).
Fighting Means Killing offers a critical exploration of the psychological nature of Americans killing fellow Americans. Steplyk's engagement with wartime correspondence and postwar reminiscences of Union and Confederate soldiers who fought in regular units, in both eastern and western theaters, provides a balanced, engaging treatment. Steplyk's study brilliantly blends military history and social history, pioneering an interpretation of how Civil War soldiers understood fighting and killing, war's most important, inescapable element.