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  • "Deeds of Brave Suffering and Lofty Heroism":Martialised Rhetoric and Kentucky Soldiers
  • Lesley J. Gordon (bio)

Civil War historians have devoted considerable attention to the topic of courage, though they have showed far less interest in its antithesis, cowardice. Soldiers themselves certainly talked about it. As James McPherson notes in his seminal book, For Cause and Comrades, letters and diaries included frequent references to "courage, bravery, and valor—the three words meant the same thing." But, he adds, they "wrote even more about cowardice—the mark of dishonor."1 Historian Gerald Linderman further observes in Embattled Courage, it was cowardly for soldiers to "feel fear" and to express it.2 "Playing the coward," whether it was a single soldier or an entire regiment, was deemed deeply shameful and base.3 An 1863 letter to the New York Times, for example, explained: "The world has always specially honored courage and stigmatized cowardice. To be brave is as essential for a man as to be chaste is for a woman, and a coward among men is [End Page 179] in as poor repute as a prostitute among women."4 The repercussions of such a perceived crime on the battlefield could be devastating. Chris Walsh, who has authored the only book length study on the topic, states that there was an accepted belief, at least early in the war, that, "a man who was a coward in war would be a coward everywhere else."5 According to Walsh, the "only definitive way to refute the charge of cowardice" was to engage "in combat."6 Through blood sacrifice as evidenced by battle wounds, tattered flags, and high casualty numbers, an individual or an entire unit could dispel questions about their worthiness as soldiers and as men. Accusing a native-born white man, notably a southern white man, of cowardly behavior was a serious challenge to the careful construction of gender, race, and power dynamics that undergirded honor-coded slave society.

In the context of the American Civil War, labels like "coward" and "hero," were so omnipresent in the martial rhetoric that they can almost be taken for granted. However, by examining them critically, we can better understand the constructed jingoistic narratives that spurred and spurned men to battle.7 As this terrible war raged, these words were no less powerful, but their meaning grew less clear when contrasted with the ruthless reality of military service. One historian explains, "the very nature of combat did not fit and could not be made to fit, within the framework of soldier expectations."8

Digitized documents allow for a more careful survey of such words and their impact. Historians can track specific words and phrases and their frequency to better understand their context. Before the [End Page 180] increased digitization of primary documents, it was far more laborious and time consuming to try to quantify word use in this manner—although it certainly was attempted.9 In this case, exploring the topic of "cowardice" electronically as it relates to a particular Kentucky regiment is revealing in terms of what technology can—and cannot do. Utilizing the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWGK) database, I began by simply searching words: "coward," and "cowardly," but also contemporary synonyms such as "poltroon," "dastard," "skulker," "shirker," or "croaker," as well as words like "shame," "disgrace," "fled," or "retreat" and terms such as "white feather."10

Preliminary searching of these terms did not uncover obvious examples of Kentucky soldiers accused of cowardice, though there is evidence of the word's significance and power. An 1859 petition to Governor Beriah Magoffin, for example, recounted the murder of a man named Harmon who had cajoled and taunted his killer, calling him a "damned coward."11 On Election Day 1860, Phillip Metz sought to protect his brother from a "melee" by seizing the attacker's "billey." Charged with concealing a weapon, Metz declared in his petition to the governor that "when a Brother is assaulted with a deadley weppon, it is cowardly, and unbecoming a son of Kentucky to not attempt a resque."12

In another instance, William McMullen, indicted for "Breach of [End Page 181] the Peace," petitioned Governor Magoffin in August...


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