Bell I. Wiley’s Timeless Analysis of the Common Civil War Soldier

This is the latest installment in the Civil War Classics series written by students in Professor Peter Carmichael’s graduate level readings course at West Virginia University. This review of Wiley’s analysis of fraternization in The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank was written by Lauren Thompson.  Click here for other posts in the series.

Bell Irvin Wiley’s influential accounts, Life of Johnny Reb and Life of Billy Yank, provide groundbreaking insight concerning the daily life of the common Civil War soldiers.  During those times when life turned monotonous and dull, Wiley found that soldiers could be remarkably creative in relieving the tedium of camp.  Fraternization was one form of escape, a topic that Wiley does not mention in Johnny Reb, but a matter that he explores in Billy Yank.  The underlying cause of fraternization, he argues, was simply curiosity.  While both sides were certainly inquisitive about the other, Wiley overlooks the deeper social and political meaning of these peaceful encounters between combatants.

Although forbidden by military order, thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers shared conversations, held swimming parties, traded goods, shared newspapers, and visited opposing sides while on picket duty. Wiley argues that prewar fraternal organizations such as the Masonic Order and the shared common language were reasons as to why many soldiers were friendly with the enemy.  Wiley also argues that the shared position as victims of political machinations also drove men to fraternize. In the end, Wiley’s investigation of the common soldier reveals that soldiers admired one another for their bravery on the battlefield, virtuous qualities of character, and sympathy for the hardship.

Wiley is at his best when describing examples of fraternization at Vicksburg, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg; however, he leaves many questions unanswered.  Wiley neglects to analyze the larger meaning of these interactions and why these men risked their lives to chat with the enemy.  When one gets beneath the veil of fraternization as a demonstration of shared Americanism between Northern and Southern soldiers, one sees a cultural of alienation that developed in the ranks.  Enemies could empathize with each other because of the bloodshed and terror they had experienced. The exposure to death and hardship these men experienced turned their linear pre-war world upside-down.  The rigors of army-life and feelings of disposability as cannon fodder challenged the soldiers’ independence and manhood they strove to gain in society.   Fraternization served as an outlet where soldiers subtly dissented as part of a culture of alienation during the time between battles.

Wiley’s depiction of fraternization remains a valuable starting point to probe the cultural life of Civil War soldiers.  The social history foundation provided by Wiley, his “bottom-up” research indispensable, but as historians we need to get underneath the descriptions of daily life in order to see how soldiers made cultural meaning of their wartime experiences.

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Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Abraham Lincoln (1954)

Click here for background information on Archbishop Sheen. [Part 2 and Part 3]

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Did the Civil War Affect European Military Culture?

This is the latest installment in the Civil War Classics series written by students in Professor Peter Carmichael’s graduate level readings course at West Virginia University.  The following brief review of Jay Luvaas’s book, The Military Legacy of the Civil War: The European Inheritance, was written by Kati Singel.  Click here for other reviews in the series.

There is an extensive literature related to the evolution of war between 1861 and 1865, but few of these studies are specific to what this evolution meant for the modern soldier. How did this evolution affect future wars? What was the military legacy of the Civil War in Europe? In The Military Legacy of the American Civil War: The European Inheritance, Jay Luvaas investigates what the Prussian, French and British military observers learned from what they saw, and how their experiences potentially influenced military theory. The American Civil War was distinguished from previous wars by new technological advances, the departure from European tactics, and the first extensive use of rifled field artillery. European observers recognized these distinctive characteristics, but they did not believe that it was possible to emulate these new tactics in Europe. Contrary to popular belief, Luvaas argues that the American Civil War “never exerted a direct influence upon military doctrine in Europe” (226).

Prior to this publication, few historians have studied the writings of European military observers with the exception of Ella Lonn, author of Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy (1951) and Foreigners in the Confederacy (1940). Evaluating newspapers, published accounts, and official government reports, Luvaas determines that military observers from England, France and Prussia (Germany) were impressed by what they saw, but they did not apply what they learned. They underestimated the value of the volunteer soldier, and therefore they were more concerned with organization and equipment rather than tactics.

After 1865, Luvaas finds that the continued neglect of the lessons of the American Civil War in Europe can be attributed to Prussian ingenuity in 1866-1870. It was not until World War I that Germany and France began to incorporate what they learned, but he does give England credit for the 1886 publication of “The Campaign of Fredericksburg” by an English officer, Capt. George F.R. Henderson. He devotes an entire chapter to Henderson and his legacy for being the first English officer after 1870 to undertake a serious study of the American Civil War. In the aftermath of World War I, Luvaas identifies how this war has been recognized as major turning point in modern warfare in J.F.C. Fuller’s Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship (1932) and Capt. B. H. Liddell Hart’s Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American (1929). It suddenly seemed obvious that the use of entrenchments during World War I was foreshadowed by the trenches at Petersburg, and the belief that the purpose of strategy is “‘to diminish the possibility of resistance’” was directly utilized by Union General William T. Sherman as he marched to the sea. Luvaas offers little criticism of Henderson, Fuller or Hart, but he recognizes that their studies are part of an effort to “confirm accepted principles rather than to discover new information that might lead to a change in doctrine” (233). Although he believes their studies to be important to the historiography of this subject, they were too late to revolutionize the military doctrine of Europe.

This book is more than a study of the effectiveness of European military observers in the American Civil War. It is a guide to understanding how the American Civil War has been understood in Europe from 1861 through World War I. Although his study is limited to military affairs, Luvaas does make an important connection between the events occurring in Europe and the advancement of military theory.

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R.E. Lee Gets Four Score and Seven Kicks to the Balls

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Carmichael Selected as New Civil War Institute Director

Congratulations to my good friend Peter Carmichael on being selected as the new Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.  It’s safe to say that anyone with a passion for Civil War history would welcome the opportunity to teach it in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

“I am very excited about the Civil War Institute and building on this incredible legacy of Gabor Boritt,” said Carmichael. “There’s no other place like Gettysburg College to be a public intellectual and where you can bring together students, scholars and the public to study the Civil War. I have visited here numerous times, but to think about this place to live in and to teach is extraordinary. I am honored.”

As you can imagine this was a highly competitive position.  I know of a number of top-notch scholars who applied for this position and I am confident that any number of them would have done an excellent job of advancing the mission of the Institute.  Peter’s commitment to reaching out to the broader community as well as his interest in public history makes him an ideal choice for this position.  Best of all a move to Pennsylvania will hopefully translate into more visits with Peter and his wife.  I wish them both all the best as they prepare for another big move.

[Photograph from Five Forks, L to R: Keith Bohannon, Kevin Levin, Peter Carmichael]

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