The Dark Side of the Civil War Needs To Lighten Up
I welcome the fact that the recent and ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made it easier for Americans to explore some of the more unpleasant aspects of the American Civil War. Studies focusing on battlefield medicine are a welcome development as is the increase in studies of the experiences and challenges that veterans faced long after the war. It is with this in mind that I eagerly started to read Michael C.C. Adams’s new book, Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War. Unfortunately, I am having trouble getting through it.
My difficulty has to do with the way in which his soldier accounts are interpreted and organized. For example, chapter 2 focuses on the hardships of the march and includes a wide selection of soldier references to inferior uniforms and shoes, unsanitary food or lack thereof and the ever present problem of dust. I get it. Marching was difficult, but the collected accounts of soldiers from different theaters of war and at different times tells us very little about the experiences of individual soldiers. Bombarding the reader with account after account tells us next to nothing about how individual soldiers experienced marching as well as other aspects of their military experience. Was there really no joy or anything else experienced on the march?
From the introduction:
But I believe strongly that Professor Nevins correctly urged us to dwell more on the dark side. We should remind ourselves now and then about the grimmer realities of this struggle and, perhaps by extension, all armed conflicts. Many books consider in depth this or that important aspect of the bleak war. I hope to perform a service by pulling together all the strands into one large tapestry. The sesquicentennial presents the opportunity to do this, as once again we ‘celebrate’ the conflict, a word I suspect could not be less appropriate. (p. 5)
OK, but what is the result of such a project? At times Adams seems to think that he is getting closer to that elusive “real war” that Whitman searched for in the hospitals around Washington, D.C. I can’t help but think that such an approach offers as distorted a picture of the Civil War and the soldiers experience specifically as do the sanitized interpretations that Adams wishes to correct.
Adams isn’t the first historian to approach the soldiers experience thematically, but what is lacking here early on in the book is an analytical framework that takes the reader beyond an initial visceral reaction.