The Dark Side of the Civil War Needs To Lighten Up

Spotsylvania DeadI 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.

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13 thoughts on “The Dark Side of the Civil War Needs To Lighten Up

  1. Christopher Shelley

    Kevin, I’ve been thinking about this idea of struggling to convey the experiences of soldiers at war since you brought it up a few posts ago. You continue to hit on the idea that in the end, it’s impossible for you understand what soldiers went through in a way that you can express to your readers. I could not agree more. I know it’s impossible for me.

    Two writers who address this to one degree or another are Chris Hedges and Lee Sandlin. Hedges’ book, _War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning_, deals with this from the point of view of a war correspondent; not a soldier, but still someone who has experienced the blood-shock of war and the loss of friends, and certainly subject to PTSD. And also subject to the seductive, addictive nature of combat, and how it compels those who experience it to try and return—how it washes out the colors of commonplace peacetime existence. While Hedges’ politics are a tad radical for my tastes, his book is quite thought-provoking, and essentially offers that it’s ultimately not possible to convey the hyper-trauma of war.

    Lee Sandlin’s great long essay “Losing the War”, on the Second World War, writes from the outsiders’ point-of-view that those who experience war first-hand cannot themselves describe it convincingly. One need only watch the interviews of Easy Company survivors in _Band of Brothers_ and the way emotion chokes them 60 years after the event.

    As someone who has never served, but who has talked to quite a few veterans (many in my classes), I’ve come to the conclusion that Hamlet got it somewhat wrong: the “undiscovered country” isn’t death—it’s combat. Those who go into combat are incapable of conveying the experience of this blood-shock; and we on this side cannot imagine it. But once one goes into that country to see what it’s really like, they too cross over, out of contact with the rest of us.

    Is it possible that Adams has crashed into this notion, and is compensating for it by quoting the soldiers exhaustively?

    Also, has anyone done a study on PTSD in the Civil War?

    Reply
      1. Craig Swain

        “Shook Over Hell” has some hits and misses (IIRC, Dean’s focus was on the Vietnam experience with a chapter or so on the Civil War?). I don’t think a good, full-length study of PTSD in the Civil War is out. The study of PTSD, in such a historical setting, requires an interdisciplinary approach (not the least of which so as the historian understands the nature of PTSD). Dave Grossman has done some outstanding work from the psychologist’s side. His published works do offer insight from 20th century experiences (particularly Vietnam). He’s written widely on the PTSD topic, but I don’t recall him referencing Civil War accounts. I would recommend Grossman’s “On Combat” and “On Killing” if you are looking for background on the subject, pertaining to combat veterans.

        Reply
  2. Bryce Hartranft

    I don’t understand your argument kevin. You say “Bombarding the reader with account after account tells us next to nothing about how individual soldiers experienced marching..” How else is one to understand the many different experiences of the Civil War without reading about many different experiences?

    Seems to me that you and this author would be on the same page. You are always railing against the anecdotal, humorous version of the Civil War offered up by Ken Burns and Shelby Foote. In fact, your writings on the abysmal state of race relations during the war is a prime example of focusing on the “dark side.”

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Bryce,

      As I stated in the post, my problem is with the lack of an analytical framework accompanying these accounts. It goes without saying that these sources don’t speak for themselves.

      Reply
      1. Bryce Hartranft

        I see what you mean by “analytical framework” now. Suppose one of the nicest parts of a secondary source is that they not only gather relevant primary sources but also provide context/analysis on them. I read a lot about battles and i like when the author weighs in on the truthfulness or legitimacy of an account. I dont know how any author can trust the plethora of self-serving diaries left behind.

        Reply
  3. Ben Allen

    Just as everybody needs some Charlie Sheen (but not his father, General Lee), Adams apparently needs some Glatthaar. I take it he quotes and paraphrases soldiers’ accounts too much and doesn’t interpret them beyond saying that war is ugly. Is this correct?

    In historiography, as with Newton’s law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, initially at least. Adams, of course, is reacting to the excessive glorification of the American Civil War. Thus, he has excessively unglorified it. No doubt, some historian will react to Adams’ work and, because two polar interpretations are already present, will take a more middle road, consequently coming to more reasonable conclusions. A case in point is the historiography of Late Antiquity. First, there were the transformationists, led by Peter Brown, who argued that the Roman Empire didn’t fall but was transformed into something else. Then there came a school of thought, championed by Peter Heather, that Rome did fell, but it was due exclusively due barbarian incursions. Next came Adrian Goldsworthy, who essentially argues that Rome fell due external as well as internal problems, although he deems it probable that the domestic issues made it possible for the barbarians to kill the Empire in the first place. The American Civil War needs an Adrian Goldsworthy… and I don’t think he is long in coming.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I take it he quotes and paraphrases soldiers’ accounts too much and doesn’t interpret them beyond saying that war is ugly. Is this correct?

      Pretty much.

      Reply
  4. Will Hickox

    Adams is a well-established historian and probably more knowledgeable on sesquicentennial commemorations than I am. But I can’t say I’m getting the sense that historians or the public are “celebrating” or sanitizing the war to any notable degree. It seems that just about every extensive discussion of the war’s 150th anniversary, whether it be for a popular or academic audience, has devoted time to its horrors.

    I also agree with you that weaving together all the available allusions to the war’s ugliness in one volume invites the danger of “protesting too much” and making the war worse than any one participant experienced.

    It reminds me of a novel by Frederick Busch, “The Night Inspector,” that made minor waves about 15 years ago. It’s so relentlessly, self-consciously ugly in its depiction of the war that it verges on the absurd.

    Reply

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