Civil War Fathers

Today my Civil War class discussed an article by James Marten on fathers and their attempts to maintain a meaningful connection with their families, especially their children.  The article is titled, "Let Me Edge Into Your Bright Fire," which appeared in North and South magazine back in September 1997.  The article provides an overview of his much larger work titled, The Children’s Civil War (1998).  In years past my classes have really enjoyed this article; in fact one year we saved our discussion for our lunch break during our tour of the Chancellorsville battlefield.  This year, for some reason, they were less enthusiastic.  One student commented that the analysis was not surprising and wondered why the story needed to be told.  We focused on the thesis to gain some clarity as to Marten’s research agenda:

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 deeply 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 the blue and gray unless one realizes how important their families were to them.

We discussed the crucial historiographical point that historians have ignored this aspect of soldier’s lives in favor of themes that connect more directly with the battlefield; most of the students understood that Marten’s analysis filled in a crucial gap, but still, they were not impressed with his examples.  One of the students shared that the various ways that soldiers kept in touch or tried to remain part of their children’s lives was predictable. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to say, but then I realized that they are looking at this topic at a time when the family backgrounds of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is front page news.  The major news outlets have focused on these types of human interest stories since the beginning of the war.  Our local news regularly runs stories about how families on the home front maintain contact with their loved ones overseas.    The sadness of long-term separation and the horrors of some of their wounds has been exploited much too often, but unfortunately that’s what keeps people tuned in.  In short, my students see soldiers as family members and it was an eye-opening realization for me.

3 comments… add one

  • GreenmanTim Oct 25, 2006

    Something they are undoubtedly not getting from modern human interest stories, unless about the challenges faced by physically maimed veterans, is the anxiety that many combat veterans feel that what they have seen or done will make them unable to go back to the roles they had in peacetime, especially those family roles of father and husband. “Mother may you never see the sights I have seen” indeed, but having seen them, can one ever truly go home and pick up one’s life again? I suspect that your class might find evidence in the primary record of soldiers’ letters home that shows that this was also a primary concern about being away from their families.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 26, 2006

    Tim, — You may be familiar with this book, but I highly recommend Eric T. Dean’s _Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War_ (Harvard University Press,1999). Well worth your time.

  • GreenmanTim Oct 26, 2006

    Excellent recommendation, Kevin. I look forward to reading it.

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