Tag Archives: Civil War Classics

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.

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.

The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861

Here is the second post in the ongoing series on Civil War classics written by students in Prof. Peter Carmichael’s graduate seminar. Today Joseph Rizzo reviews David Potter’s classic, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861Read other reviews in the series.

Professional historians, to varying degrees, believe that slavery was elemental to the coming of the Civil War.  While there is disagreement as to the ways that the conflict over slavery and wage labor infused sectional differences, David Potter has arguably done more than any other scholar to forge a consensus on this issue.  In Impending Crisis, he explores the different ways that slavery ignited the sectional conflict while refuting generalizations that describe the North and South as culturally different. Some saw the struggle as a clash of profoundly dissimilar cultures whose disparities transcended the difference over slavery. Others had a more economic opinion and viewed the conflict as a clash between economic interests of an emerging industrialist North and an agricultural South.  A third viewpoint saw the conflict arising from different values between the sections. Potter’s criticism with these three arguments is that they all embellish the differences between the North and South and fail to see the similarities between the two regions. Potter displays how similar northerners and southerners were, and that a sense of American nationalism permeated both cultures more than historians have acknowledged.

Although the cultural, economic, and ideological explanations recognize slavery as an issue in sectional division, they neglect its significance within American culture. Potter shows how slavery was a key element to all three of the explanations for division. “Slavery, in one aspect or another, pervaded all of the aspects of sectionalism,” argues Potter (44). In spite of the American nationalism and cultural homogeneity between the North and South, the slavery issue intensified following the acquisition of new territory following the Mexican-American War and caused both northerners and southerners to lose sight of how much alike they were and how many values they shared. With a breakdown of the two-party system nationally, the Election of 1860 represented how much the slavery issue isolated the two regions as the young Republican party won a victory despite only receiving Northern votes. Not surprisingly, the breakup of the country followed soon after.

By placing slavery at the forefront of the conflict, Potter continues the debate over the main cause of the war. Was the war inevitable? Was slavery the main cause? Michael Holt has led a movement against Potter’s interpretation and responded with a study claiming that slavery was not the central reason, and that the breakdown of the two-party political system caused disunion. William Freehling’s work adds to the historiography by arguing that the South’s culture was not unified over slavery and that these internal divisions fostered anxieties, which fueled extremism. Future studies that elaborate from Potter’s traditional political narrative and infuse political culture will give a more complete analysis of 1850s. Not only understanding how Americans viewed singular events but also how they interpreted the world in which they lived will open new discussions about the causes of the war.

The Burden of Southern History

This is the first guest post in a series of reviews written by students who are currently enrolled in Prof. Peter Carmichael’s graduate seminar at West Virginia University.  Students will contribute 300-500 word reviews of Civil War classics.  Click here for more information on this series.  This review of Woodward’s classic collection of essays was written by Ashley M. Whitehead.  Comments are strongly encouraged.  Read other posts in this series.

Debates concerning the origins and nature of southern distinctiveness have occurred since the antebellum era.  Southerners themselves initially cited their region’s political system, which was deeply rooted in the “peculiar institution” of slavery and state-based government, as the South’s most distinctive feature.  Historians and southerners writing after the Civil War, including proponents of the Lost Cause, argued that the South’s “innocence, traditionalism, virtuousness, and purity” separated the South from a more modern, “aggressive,” and industrialized North—a proposition that held sway up through the middle of the twentieth century.

However, as C. Vann Woodward notes in his seminal work, The Burden of Southern History, northerners were equally complicit in fostering such views of “southern distinctiveness.”  Woodward argues that, beginning with the Lost Cause and sectional reconciliation era of the 1880s, northerners joined the South in celebrations of its regional culture and that they further embraced the idea of southern distinctiveness by portraying the South as a haven and refuge from the disconcerting corruption and rapid modernization of the post-war North.

During the early and mid-twentieth century, Woodward writes, the notion of southern distinctiveness acquired new meaning as Americans began to embrace and promote the idea of “American exceptionalism” on a truly global scale.  This so-called “national myth” portrayed America as a global leader that had never known defeat and whose foundations rested upon an eternal commitment to liberty and morality.  Woodward argues that, in order to justify this “national myth,” Americans used the South as its scapegoat for its previous moral and political failures, including slavery, civil war, and periodic economic troubles.  By “dumping” its historical and moral burdens on the South, Americans thus were able to purge their own (perceived) triumphant national history of its historical baggage; such efforts, in turn, resulted in the increasing differentiation between “mainstream” America and the South and in the perpetuation of the myth of southern distinctiveness.  Therefore Woodward argues, in reality, the South is not as inherently unique as we, as a nation, have come to believe; rather, it is the South’s experiences—of defeat and of an imagined separatism—that have made it seem so distinct.

Woodward’s numerous later additions to his original version of The Burden of Southern History provide insightful commentary on how and why our more recent perceptions of the South have changed over time.  Woodward writes that, in light of the devastating Vietnam War era, Americans have come to see the South as somehow “less distinct,” and its experiences of failure, moral dilemmas, and economic/political troubles as “more American.”  Woodward’s observation is astute, as it reflects the influence that contemporary political issues and national identity crises play in our history as a whole, and our view of the South in particular:  The idea of southern distinctiveness surged when America’s burdens became viewed as strictly “the South’s burdens.” Similarly, the South became less distinct and “more American,” (or America, more “southern”) when America began to experience the same “burdens” that previously had been associated strictly with southern history.

Woodward’s  brilliant analysis of the South’s history, identity and place in American memory shows that southern history is “messy,” ironic, paradoxical, and a complex mix of “lived” experience, myth, and imagination. Woodward writes that truth and meaning from the emotionally-charged historical debates over the South’s contested history is perhaps best found in the work of the poet or an author such as William Faulkner who might better understand the relationship of myth and reality.   Woodward proves himself more than worthy as a conveyor of such truth and meaning.  Indeed, Woodward serves as a sort of poet-historian who understands, far better than most writers, the burden of the past on the present, and vice versa.

Future historians might enrich Woodward’s analysis of the nation’s original literary consciousness of the South through further engagement with literature produced in or about the South in both the antebellum and post-bellum years.  Such studies would help to clarify the depth and regional breadth of nineteenth-century popular opinion concerning the cultural distinctiveness of the South.  Additional scholarship on the differences between geographical and ideological conceptions of “the South” also would help to clarify what, exactly, historians—and the American public—mean when they refer to “the South” and would help to explain how and why those definitions have evolved over time. Finally, historians would contribute significantly to our understanding of the close relationship of history, memory and the perpetuation of what Woodward has called “historical burden” by continuing to evaluate how and why current events and cultural trends have further altered (or not altered) our present-day perceptions of the South.