Is There Room in Dark History…

I was perusing the program for the upcoming AHA in New York City and noticed a couple of interesting Civil War panels. They tend to reflect the recent turn toward exploring the emotional lives of soldiers and the challenges they faced throughout the postwar period – what some people are calling “dark history.”

Here is an interesting panel that will be moderated by Brian Craig Miller:

AHA PanelAll of this is worth exploring and I wish I could be there in person, but I am left wondering whether this embrace of the war as an overwhelmingly debilitating experience on all levels leaves room for soldiers who embraced it in ways that directly counter this framework. What do we do with soldiers on both sides who came out of the war intact or even thrived as a result of it? Do we even have an analytical framework that takes such an experience seriously or do we fear risking glamourizing war?

Just a thought to end the work week.

16 comments add yours

  1. As someone who deals with those damaged by civil wars every day, I am happy to see more work on the life of the soldiers/civilian after the battle. It really was not deeply explored until recently in conjunction with the Civil War. That may be why there is a proliferation of studies now.

    • Please understand that I am not in any way minimizing or trying to undercut the importance of these studies. I do wonder what these studies collectively are doing to our overall memory of the Civil War soldier experience.

      No doubt our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has pushed the overall focus of these studies, but I see these studies originating with the Vietnam War.

  2. Tracking veterans’ postwar trajectories seems like a great “big data” project that is possible in the not-too-distant future with the cooperation of something like Ancestry.com and digitized newspapers.

    For now, another possible analytical approach would be thorough biographical/genealogical investigations of a set of Civil War soldiers chosen by random sample or from the same regiment or company. For efficiency in compiling and understanding primary sources, examining soldiers from a single (or a small number of) communities is probably required.

    A friend, who is a skilled genealogist, has done this for two full companies of soldiers from Pennsylvania but has been been sitting on publishing it for the last twenty years. Once it’s out, it will be a great resource to ask questions about social pathologies, family patterns, career patterns, religious involvement, involvement in the GAR, who went West, etc. to gain some initial hypotheses about these trends.

  3. This is a very good question, but not always a negative one. Too often, I believe, we think of soldiers who survive a war as perfectly fine if they’re physically unscathed. But that may not be the case. In addition to PTSD, etc., it seems to me that for many soldiers there was simply no other event in their lives that measured up in magnitude to the Civil War. For example, in the Chamberlain family, the War seems to have “made” Joshua Lawrence in a way, as the perfect test of manhood that led to fame and high standing after the war, while his brother Tom seemed to have had a lot of trouble with alcohol and keeping a job.
    I’m glad that scholars are looking beyond the Grand Review and the medals to “what happened next”.

  4. I see Kevin’s point. Do we get so fixated on the pathologies that we ignore those who functioned adequately and those who even thrived post-war? Particularly in the culture of the mid-19th century US, there were men who were the happiest and most at ease in the structure and discipline of the army and who fell apart without it. Look at the two Chamberlain brothers who were soldiers in the Civil War. Thomas actually had a very successful Civil War career (not as spectacular as Joshua’s but very other men did either) but he fell apart and died of chronic health problems exacerbated by alcoholism at the age of 55. Joshua was, of course, JOSHUA LAWRENCE CHAMBERLAIN. Obviously, specialized studies are very important but so is context.

    • Of course, Elmer Ellsworth did not see a great deal of the war. I think his time can be measured in hours instead of years. Still, he had endured a lot previously, including the death of his brother from illness. His brother probably would not have died if he had not gone to Chicago to join Ellsworth’s militia company, so there was plenty of guilt to go around.

      I mention EE because he seemed to be the type of man who thrived on adversity, who looked forward to challenges, who simply faced what was in front of him and dealt with it. He is often accused of being one of those civilians who glamorized war, but showy as his Zouave Cadets were, Ellsworth took the role of the volunteer militia very seriously.

      I am thinking that perhaps men who had a wider range of experience, who had goals that reached farther than the next battle, might have been in a better position to withstand the rigors of war. I have always thought EE would have been just fine had he lived. The topics suggested here have reminded me once again that context may be the clue.

  5. Thanks for the post, Kevin! I absolutely agree that there is room to talk about men who thrived during wartime without necessarily glamorizing killing and death. There is a published collection of letters by a British expatriate who served in the Union army. He rose from the rank of private to be an officer in the USCT. Not because he believed in the Union cause or wanted to see enslaved blacks free; he liked the pay. He also had a safehouse prepared with documents proving his identity (he enlisted under a fake name) so that if he felt the need to desert, he could produce papers to try and throw the authorities off of his scent. A real character, and he raises complicated questions about the nature of heroism and service during wartime.
    I myself am very much looking forward to receiving feedback from our commentator and the audience on these topics. I hope that we will have a fruitful discussion about mental health & physical disability, societal expectations of manliness, cowardice, and the costs of war.

  6. James Marten recently released “America’s Corporal,” which is about a wounded Union soldier who went on to become a sort of professional veteran and celebrity speaker in the postwar years. It would probably be wrong to say that this man–who lost both of his feet at 2nd Bull Run–“thrived,” but he certainly banked on his veteran status, speaking quite frequently and proudly about it.

  7. The quintessential American who thrived on war was Teddy Roosevelt. One commentator (I was listening, not watching, so I didn’t catch his name) on Ken Burn’s film The Roosevelts’ pushed the envelope a little further than most in portraying Teddy as quite disturbed given his revelry in gore during the Spanish American War and pride that his unit had the highest death rate. Were there any Civil War generals who had an attitude similar to Roosevelt’s?

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