Civil War Fathers

I had another excellent Civil War class today in which we discussed James Marten’s work on children. We read his North and South article “Let Me Edge in to Your Bright Fire,” (September 1998) which explores the steps that fathers took to maintain contact with their children back home. Marten is the author of two recent studies of the family and children during the Civil War, including The Children’s Civil War and Children for the Union: The War Spirit on the Northern Home Front. Here is a quick synopsis of Marten’s thesis:

Confederate and Union fathers mourned the loss of daily contact with their sons and daughters the way they would mourn the loss of a limb in combat. But as their correspondence with their families so touchingly reveals, they refused to give up their paternal roles. Their letters home reveal a side of Civil War soldiers unexplored in most accounts of their lives: their love for their children, their determination to remain important figures in their children’s lives, their startlingly “modern” approach to childrearing. These were not the distant Victorian fathers that we so often read about, but men deepy engaged in the raising of their sons and daughters. Civil War soldiers fought to remain fathers in deed as well as in name, and filled their letters with affection and advice. This was a vital part of their self-images, and one cannot fully understand the men who wore the blue and the gray unless one realizes how important their families were to them.

I have to admit that I was surprised by some of the opening comments. My approach is to give the students a chance to voice their general reactions before getting into the analysis of the author’s thesis. A few students wondered, “What does it add?” Another student quipped, “So they missed their children, big deal.” Following this “airing of the grievances” I asked them to step back and think more critically about Marten’s thesis. What does he think is missing from our traditional interpretations of Civil War soldiers? How do we tend in all wars to think about the behavior and psychology of the American soldier? After some thought a few of the students suggested that these stories “make the men more human” and “personalize the war.”

What was interesting from my perspective was the direction the discussion took. As we discussed Marten’s evidence the students wondered why these men didn’t just leave the armies for the home front. One of the students chimed in by referring to his Valley of the Shadow research and the Animated Maps that can be viewed to follow a certain regiment around the map. He noted that the men in the 5th Virginia from Staunton had every opportunity to leave since their travels rarely took them great distances from home. I knew exactly where this discussion was going and it was a pleasure to watch it develop. We’ve read articles by Chandra Manning and James McPherson who suggest that soldiers were motivated to join and endure the horrors of war because of a strong commitment to ideological principles. The challenge for my students turned out to be that given these fathers’ deep emotional connection with their families and children that many of these men who had the opportunity to leave the ranks by deserting did not do so. (Recent studies suggest that desertion rates among Virginia units did not rise steadily throughout the war and that only during the final 6 months did the numbers rise sharply.) Their difficulty was comprehending that a commitment to an ideology could have trumped the more immediate emotional concerns on the ground. I eventually asked my students to think about an idea that they would be willing to die for. Not one spoke up. As a teacher these are priceless moments when students see clearly the great divide between themselves and people who lived not too long ago.

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