Book Review The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies by Peter S. Carmi

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
28,602
Location
Long Island, NY
#1
war for the common soldier.JPG


The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era) by Peter S. Carmichael published by The University of North Carolina Press (2018) 408 pages $34.95 Hardcover, $15.39 Kindle
Peter Carmichael takes an interesting approach to explaining how men thought and acted during the Civil War. In his new book he uses case studies of a couple of dozen soldiers and long excepts from soldiers' letters to explore several common themes. Instead of finding a ten word snippet from a letter to make a point, Carmichael provides paragraphs from the letters of a single man at a time to explore how the soldier thought about the war and his service in it. He follows the soldier over time to see how his attitudes alter, and to see if he acts on the thoughts he expresses in his letters home. Along the way, the popular professor provides insights into how soldiers letters should be read, what they concealed, and how they differed depending on the region the author was from.

Carmichael ends his book with a discussion of the pragmatism of Oliver Wendell Holmes. He might just as well have begun with Holmes as well, since Carmichael emphasizes the pragmatic approach of many soldiers throughout the book. In many ways, this book is a response to books by people like Gary Gallagher, who stress the ideological element of Civil War soldier motivation. Gallagher emphasized the devotion to the Union as a primary motivator for common soldiers in the Federal armies. Other reviewers have also seen in this book a turning away from the so-called "dark turn" of recent Civil War scholarship which constructs the soldiers on both sides as pawns in a game of someone else's making.

Note: This review will be posted in multiple installments.
 

(Membership has it privileges! To remove this ad: Register NOW!)

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
28,602
Location
Long Island, NY
#2
Part 2:

In his Introduction, Carmichael criticizes the limitations of many works on soldiers' motivations. He writes:

Too often historians invest ideology and identity with an all-encompassing explanatory power. This creates the impression that soldiers acted in reflexive ways to abstractions like sentimentalism, the ideal of the citizen-soldier, nationalism, and duty. In many cases, the connections between soldiers’ thought and action appear mechanical and static because they fail to adequately account for the ways that beliefs and actions rose spontaneously out of particular conditions. The contingencies of soldiering, above all else, are often lost when ideological comments are extracted as transparent statements as to why men fought. (p. 11).

Carmichael writes that rather that picking lines from letters showing an ideological point of view, he wants to shift "the axis of investigation from what Union and Confederate soldiers thought to how they thought." This, he acknowledges, is no easy task:

Examining how soldiers thought is fraught with challenges, given that so much of the existing Civil War correspondence can be catalogued as terse tales that never pierce the inner world of the writer. The internalization of the war among veterans, as pervasive as it was, does not mean that any inquiry into how these men thought is beyond reach. Moving the inquiry below the content of wartime writings uncovers cultural orientations that shape, color, and organize the way people see, comprehend, and represent the world around them. My understanding of the act of writing is closely aligned with my belief that soldier letters are neither transparent windows into the workings of the author’s mind nor unmediated statements that reveal why men fought. The act of writing registers an expression of reality filtered through cultural lenses and the idiosyncratic tendencies of the writer. When less emphasis is placed on the truthfulness of a soldier’s writings, it is possible to see letter writing as a creative act. (p. 11).
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
28,602
Location
Long Island, NY
#3
Part 3:

When you read Civil War letters, you often encounter phrases indicating that the actions of the soldier, from enlistment in the army to surviving a battle, to the ultimate outcome of the war, all reflect the will of God. This is not surprising in a mostly Protestant country periodically set on fire by evangelical revivals underlain by Calvinist predestinarianism. Carmichael says that while soldiers genuinely believed what they wrote about providence, Union soldiers, at least, acted as though the pragmatic choices they made also played a role in their experience of war. Soldiers learned quickly that reliance on God alone would not help them survive the war.

According to Carmichael, soldiers adopted an approach of "providential pragmatism, which enabled a soldier to think in the moment without giving up on God." The pragmatic approach is the one Carmichael believes came to dominate the thinking of those enlistees who lived long enough to become veterans.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
28,602
Location
Long Island, NY
#4
Part 4:

The record of men's feelings can be difficult to decipher. Carmichael notes one set of examples of mass willful lying. In 1865, as Lee's army stared defeat in the face, regiments began issuing proclamations declaring their optimism about the war's outcome. Resolutions like this one from the 56th Virginia were reprinted in the newspapers:

“Resolved, That in the ability and skill of our Commander in Chief, Robert E. Lee, we repose the most implicit and unreserved confidence, that firmly believed in the justness and holiness of our cause for final success, disdaining all of the privations, hardships and perils of war, we will promptly and cheerfully respond to every call of duty and patriotism and press forward with zeal, confidence and vigor to the glorious prize before us.”

As Carmichael notes, these missives were lies concocted by officers to deceive noncombatants. They could never, of course, have fooled the men doing the fighting. Yet they muddy the record for anyone who, like Carmichael, hopes to decipher the evidence of how the soldiers thought.
 
Last edited:

Cavalry Charger

1st Lieutenant
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Jan 24, 2017
Messages
4,768
#5
the axis of investigation from what Union and Confederate soldiers thought to how they thought.
Decided to put the emphasis in there because that seems to be the crux of the author's intent in writing this book.

I'm assuming he has researched an equal number of Union and Confederate soldiers in his writing?
 

Cavalry Charger

1st Lieutenant
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Jan 24, 2017
Messages
4,768
#6
It sounds like a very interesting read, and I thought this would be obvious:
the act of writing registers an expression of reality filtered through cultural lenses
How else would a man write except through his own cultural lense?
Is he going to make allowances for this, or make judgements around it?
Hopefully it is up to the reader to make judgements based on the teasing out of the issues.
 
Last edited:

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
28,602
Location
Long Island, NY
#8
Part 5:

The case studies that Carmichael uses to illustrate his conclusions about the lives of soldiers are all well-told tales of mostly ordinary men. They support the authors thesis, but I wondered how representative these men were of large numbers of other soldiers. Deserters are overrepresented among the subjects of the case studies. I was also troubled that Carmichael, while mentioning that many officers were nativists, did not give a prominent place to any immigrant soldiers.

Carmichael offers an explanation for not featuring any women soldiers, and he does offer a case study of a black Union soldier, but he does not even excuse the absence of immigrants. Immigrant soldiers made up roughly a quarter of all Union soldiers, more than Blacks and women soldiers combined. They also were unlikely to come from the evangelical Protestant religious background of other white soldiers. Their motivations for enlisting, their experiences of regimental integration, and their reactions to the trials of combat may have been different, but we would not know it from this study. If Carmichael did not include them in his research he should have said why.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
28,602
Location
Long Island, NY
#9
Part 6:

Northern soldiers employed a coping mechanism that, Carmichael says, was not much used by Southern whites; ironic detachment. This use of irony allowed soldiers to detach themselves from suffering and defeat. Unionists could seek refuge in the "preposterousness of life."

Whether from North Carolina or northern Michigan, most soldiers did adopt a pragmatic view of events. This pragmatism, writes Carmichael, "did not rob men of long-held beliefs, especially when it came to race, but it did enable them to value flexibility of thought when circumstances demanded quick and agile thinking. The Army of the Potomac’s Charles Bowen, for instance, despised abolitionists for what he called their celebration of “Nigg@rh@ad equality.” Yet the New Yorker possessed the mental agility to modify his racial attitudes and show empathy with black men as comrades."
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
28,602
Location
Long Island, NY
#10
Part 7:

The book concludes with a discussion of the thinking of Union and Confederate soldiers and the final days of the war. How did they come to terms with victory and defeat? What intellectual resources did they employ to understand the changed world of April, May, and June of 1865?

Carmichael dives into both the reflective letters of soldiers and their actions in taking tokens of the war's end, like splinters from the tree Lee was seen working under right before the surrender, to understand how these men thought.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
28,602
Location
Long Island, NY
#12
Conclusion:

This book has a lot going for it. Peter Carmichael uses an uncommon case study approach that most readers will find interesting. He is a good writer who powers his book with his extensive knowledge of the Civil War and the society it erupted from. He occasionally dips into jargon, but only long enough to try to establish his thesis. I think most folks at Civil War talk will gain from from reading The War for the Common Soldier.

As good as the selection of letters used by Carmichael is, I am still not sure that they are broadly representative enough to sustain his thesis. This to me is the problem with The War for the Common Soldier. Perhaps others more familiar with the literature could let us know if you think Professor Carmichael is on firm ground.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
28,602
Location
Long Island, NY
#13
The Wall Street Journal has reviewed this book.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-wa...e-review-billy-yank-and-johnny-reb-1544223526

From the review:

In “The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies,” Peter Carmichael, a professor of history at Gettysburg College, builds on a stream of studies of Civil War combatants published over the past two decades. Noting the extensive attention to soldiers’ motivations and ideology in recent scholarship, Mr. Carmichael seeks instead to understand “the life of the rank and file as it was lived,” the way they responded to expectations placed upon them, and how they navigated “moments of doubt” as they struggled simply to survive. Employing what he describes as a “case study” approach, Mr. Carmichael shapes his text around extended individual portraits of soldiers North and South—from a lawyer in the Michigan infantry to a semiliterate Georgia farmer, to a former slave enrolled in the U.S. Colored Troops, to a Chicago clerk, to a non-slaveholding North Carolinian executed for desertion. The greatest strength and appeal of the book lies in these glimpses of men endeavoring to cope with the “laborious work” that is war. Their voices, often in awkward, misspelled—but by that very token all the more eloquent—prose, invite us into their almost unimaginable experience in the “vast and destructive war machine.”

Mr. Carmichael characterizes these men as essentially pragmatists, driven not so much by “high ideas” as by the demands of “military necessity” and the “grim reality” that confronted them. Northerners and Southerners appear more alike than different, although Confederates, he posits, were constrained by a code of honor and a need for mastery and control that could limit their adaptability to changing circumstance...
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
28,602
Location
Long Island, NY
#14
From the conclusion of the Wall Street Journal review:

Mr. Carmichael may overargue his case, for in spite of significant continuities, Americans, especially in the South, confronted an altered world after the war. Four million former slaves, including 90,000 who had served as Union soldiers, were now free; white Southerners returned to find their social order overturned and their region’s wealth all but destroyed; and approximately 750,000 men North and South, more than 2% of the population, never returned at all. The very pragmatism that Mr. Carmichael emphasizes would have necessitated more change than he allows.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
28,602
Location
Long Island, NY
#16
The book is reviewed on H-Net:

https://networks.h-net.org/node/411...war-common-soldier-how-men-thought-fought-and

From the Review:

Peter S. Carmichael’s The War for the Common Soldier is, above all else, a pragmatic book. In highlighting the defining characteristics of the men who fought and suffered through the Civil War, Carmichael seeks to bridge a widening rift between more popular celebratory and heroic accounts of soldiers that began shortly after the end of the war—and, advanced most notably by Bell Wiley, continue, in some form to the present day—and an increasingly critical view of the rank and file as unfortunate pawns who, misled by the nationalism that sparked a misguided rush to the colors, found themselves trapped in an unforgiving machine that resulted in misery and death for far too many, a view that seems to have some appeal to those interested in the “darker” aspects of the sectional conflict.[1] Thus, the author joins with Union soldier Amos Judson in pushing back against a “sentimental culture with its enshrinement of extreme courage and its sanitation of the war’s most grotesque elements” (p. 230), while still revealing the laudable conduct and mental agility of soldiers in both armies. As the double entendre in his title suggests, Carmichael seeks to both explore the experience for the common soldier as well as weigh in on the historiographical debate over how he should be remembered. In doing so, the author provides a very useful theoretical construct for understanding how Civil War soldiers conceptualized, endured, and remembered their wartime experiences.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
28,602
Location
Long Island, NY
#17
From the conclusion of the H-Net review:

Though Carmichael argues that soldiers were often remarkably candid in relaying their frustrations with the war to an audience back home, the letters were always written for someone else’s consumption and, given the dearth of news from “the front,” were often shared among family members and even reprinted in local newspapers. Thus, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to know exactly what a soldier was thinking. Indeed, Carmichael acknowledges, “letters are neither transparent windows into the author’s mind nor unmediated statements that reveal why men fought” (p. 11). In addition, soldiers, like other human beings, experienced a range of emotions, endured highs and lows, and alternately expressed support for or frustration with their cause and the prosecution of the war. Though Carmichael uses multiple letters from the same author, supplemented with additional information to level out these characteristic highs and lows and tease out true feelings, soldiers’ deepest inner thoughts still remain somewhat opaque.
 

NH Civil War Gal

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 5, 2017
Messages
2,378
#19
“Resolved, That in the ability and skill of our Commander in Chief, Robert E. Lee, we repose the most implicit and unreserved confidence, that firmly believed in the justness and holiness of our cause for final success, disdaining all of the privations, hardships and perils of war, we will promptly and cheerfully respond to every call of duty and patriotism and press forward with zeal, confidence and vigor to the glorious prize before us.”

"As Carmichael notes, these missives were lies concocted by officers to deceive noncombatants. They could never, of course, have fooled the men doing the fighting. Yet they muddy the record for anyone who, like Carmichael, hopes to decipher the evidence of how the soldiers thought."

Were these lies under anyone's direct command in CSA government in Richmond? If not, why and how were the officers doing this? Would a lone officer just get an itch to do this?
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
28,602
Location
Long Island, NY
#20
“Resolved, That in the ability and skill of our Commander in Chief, Robert E. Lee, we repose the most implicit and unreserved confidence, that firmly believed in the justness and holiness of our cause for final success, disdaining all of the privations, hardships and perils of war, we will promptly and cheerfully respond to every call of duty and patriotism and press forward with zeal, confidence and vigor to the glorious prize before us.”

"As Carmichael notes, these missives were lies concocted by officers to deceive noncombatants. They could never, of course, have fooled the men doing the fighting. Yet they muddy the record for anyone who, like Carmichael, hopes to decipher the evidence of how the soldiers thought."

Were these lies under anyone's direct command in CSA government in Richmond? If not, why and how were the officers doing this? Would a lone officer just get an itch to do this?
He doesn't say. However, there were a bunch of them all as defeat was becoming more and more certain.
 



(Membership has it privileges! To remove this ad: Register NOW!)
Top