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  • The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies by Peter S. Carmichael
  • James Marten (bio)
The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies. By Peter S. Carmichael. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Pp. 392. Cloth, $34.95.)

This book is not your father's history of Civil War soldiers—at least not if your father liked to read Bell I. Wiley, or any of the other historians who have contributed to one of the deepest and most satisfying historiographies of the Civil War era. In The War for the Common Soldier, Peter Carmichael sets out not to examine motivations or ideology, but to explore "the life of the rank and file as it was lived" (10).

Carmichael believes that the war forced soldiers in the North and South to bridge the gulf between two competing impulses. "Sentimentalism" helped soldiers understand war as a series of hardships and sacrifices that could be endured through faith, courage, and patriotism. Confronting this conventional approach was that "pragmatism" that guided soldiers desperately seeking to survive with honor the filth, blood, and despair that they actually experienced. Although there is a lot going on here—Carmichael addresses masculinity, race, and, particularly usefully, social class—the book's focus is clearly on the dichotomy between sentimentalism and pragmatism.

The book is organized into chapters more or less in line with more traditional histories of the common soldier, each focusing on an aspect of military life and soldiers' relationships with civilian society. They include "Comrades, Camp, and Community," "Writing Home," "Courage and Cowardice," and "Facing the Enemy and Confronting Defeat." Carmichael's more evocative chapters are less traditional. "Providence and Cheerfulness" sets the book's tone, describing how soldiers experienced a "loss of certitude" about the role of providential authority and realized the need to recalibrate their values in order simply to survive (68). "Desertion and Military Justice" provides a startlingly intimate look at decisions made by soldiers whose pragmatism led them to desert, and the sometimes catastrophic consequences they faced. The last chapter, "The Trophies of Victory and the Relics of Defeat," offers a unique view of the immediate end of the war, as soldiers on both sides began to reckon with their experiences, partly by collecting souvenirs and tucking away mementoes of their service. [End Page 645]

Each chapter features case studies of several Confederate and Union soldiers, chosen because each soldier produced a long arc of letters to loved ones—usually spouses—filled with extraordinary detail about the writer's emotional journey. Carmichael's close reading of the letters may be the book's most unique contribution to the literature. Few historians have taken soldiers' words as seriously or drawn such a stark portrait of soldiers' lives (there is more than a hint of the "dark turn" so prominent in soldier studies lately). He does sample many other soldiers' papers, published and unpublished, but he clearly wants these narratives of individuals to carry most of the evidentiary burden.

This technique leads to an inevitable bias, of course; most soldiers didn't write letters, let alone a series of letters revealing the inevitable transformation that war forced on them. Carmichael's decision to focus so closely on just a few men chosen primarily because of the richness of their correspondence makes it impossible to suggest that he is getting a full picture. Although his subtitle suggests a broad, even comprehensive approach, Carmichael has not captured how Civil War soldiers "thought." Rather, he's captured how a few of those soldiers thought.

It is important to note that this is a conscious choice. "The reconstruction of one person's perspective cracks open the broader cultural world that all soldiers inhabited," Carmichael declares (73). Not everyone will accept that notion, but most will have to admit that Carmichael's deep description of these individuals' experiences does, in fact, complicate in compelling ways our ideas about American men at arms during the Civil War.

The failure to achieve (or even to attempt, in a way) a comprehensive analysis will be seen by some as a major problem...


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pp. 645-647
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