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  • Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat by Jonathan M. Steplyk
  • Kathryn J. Shively (bio)
Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat. By Jonathan M. Steplyk. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018. Pp. 304. Cloth, $29.95.)

Fighting Means Killing probes a question that many civilians long to ask of returning veterans: "Did you kill anybody?" (5). Moreover, it invokes that question's illicit companion: If so, did you enjoy it? As Jonathan Steplyk acknowledges, these are distinctly post–Vietnam War inquiries. Since the late 1970s, antiwar activists have often preferred to characterize soldiers as the victims or, at least, the instruments of unethical military or governmental overlords. Killing came to be understood as an avoidable, objectionable aspect of war with lasting psychological consequences for veterans. In applying these questions to the American Civil War, Steplyk reveals that, in contrast to modern civilian mores, Confederate and Federal soldiers generally "affirmed and accepted killing" as necessary to their jobs and to the success of their respective causes (7). The societies that produced them likewise legitimized killing, despite the fact that enemies had so recently been fellow Americans. The majority of the book, then, teases out the "spectrum of readiness, willingness, and enthusiasm" to kill along which soldiers on both sides felt and behaved, marking two extremes (7). On one end, some soldiers—particularly Confederates acting against United States Colored Troops and, conversely, black soldiers [End Page 316] issuing reprisals—executed surrendering soldiers. On the other end, some men—restrained by religious values or caught in moments of enraptured fraternization—flatly refused to take lives.

The monograph unfolds in seven chapters, six of which form interrelated pairs. The first chapter illustrates a broad array of prewar cultural factors that may have shaped wartime attitudes toward killing, such as adherence to the Bible, experience with slaughtering animals, and the inflammation of animosity during the sectional crisis. The second and third chapters provide an overview of killing in the Civil War and the language employed to describe it, the latter of which often emphasized a businesslike acceptance of combat's most brutal mandate. Throughout these two chapters, Steplyk includes useful observations about the factors that helped soldiers to cope with killing, such as the black smoke that obscured their views or the parabolic arc of their projectiles, both of which prevented leveling aim at individual humans.

Chapters 4 and 5 explore the fringe experiences of hand-to-hand combat and sharpshooting. Of particular interest is Steplyk's challenge to the historiographical mainstay that sharpshooters were widely despised. He contends that the main evidence for this assumption rests on two famous accounts by artillerists, who, uniquely exposed at their guns, had ample reason to loathe sharpshooters. Otherwise, Steplyk suggests, infantry soldiers tended to admire their exceptionally skilled comrades, while sharpshooters themselves took pride in their kills and maintained a strict code of conduct. The final two chapters also look to the margins of experience to understand who killed with the most and the least zeal. The latter chapter specifically examines how race prompted executions on both sides. These topics are well trod in the literature, and Steplyk sides with those scholars, such as Mark Neely and Mark Grimsley, who reject the Civil War as total, emphasizing its limits.

There are a number of aspects to admire in this monograph. Steplyk hopes to bridge the gap between traditional and new military history, using the sources of both, including diaries, letters, memoirs, training manuals, and official records. He succeeds in presenting a military history topic that will, no doubt, have considerable appeal in academic and public spheres. Moreover, Steplyk's work is a contribution to the branch of Civil War social history that examines the soldier's internal life rather than material experiences. This is an area of study inaugurated by Gerald Linderman's Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (1987), a work based on limited research and strongly colored by the Vietnam War, which concludes that combat undermined Civil War soldiers' self-conceptions of manliness, courage, and honor, rendering a [End Page 317] generation traumatized. Since Linderman, Earl Hess, Randall Jimerson...


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pp. 316-319
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