Fighting for the United States

The other day I mentioned some of the difficulties my students are having in identifying with why northerners rushed to defend the nation in the spring of 1861 as opposed to the relative ease with which they identify with a southern defense of hearth and home.  Thanks to those of you who left a comment or emailed me directly with ideas of primary sources that could be utilized in the classroom.  I went through my own library and found a wonderful collection of letters edited by Nina Silber and Mary B. Stevens, titled Yankee Correspondence: Civil War Letters between New England Soldiers and the Home Front (University of Virginia Press, 1996.  The nice thing about this volume is that the letters are divided by theme and are narrowly focused on a specific region of the North.  The importance of regional affiliation figured prominently in our discussion today.  I had my students read through and discuss four letters from the book, including the following letter written by Isaac A. Brooks [Second Brigade, Second Division, Third Corps, Army of the Potomac]

October 13, 1861

My Dear Children,
    As there are so many of you in the nest at home, I cannot write to each one, and therefore send this to you all.  I think you will be glad to hear from me, in a letter to you all, as well as to hear of me through Mothers letters, for I never forget you, even if I do not write to you.  Mothers account of you are very gratifying to me, for I think you are all trying to be good children, to give Mother as little trouble as you can, & to improve yourselves.  My life here, is not very pleasant, but I submit to it because I think it is for the best and it is the duty of us all, to do what we can for our country and to preserve its integrity even to the sacrifice of our lives, if that is necessary.  It is a glorious country, and must be preserved to our children.  It was given to us entire, and we must give it to you, entire and you must give it as you receive it, to those who come after you.  Remember your country is next to God, in love, and never see it injured, or disgraced, if you have a hand, or a mind, to put forth in its defense.  I hope to return to you in due time, safe and well, and find you are well and happy, but should it be so ordered that we do not meet again on earth, remember to love, and serve your country in whatever way it may be your lot to do so.  To do this, many things are needed, which you will all learn in due time, but one of the foundations will be, to be sober, honest and industrious….
    So be good children all of you, & remember I think of you all, daily, even if I can not see you

Your Affectionate Father

As I mentioned earlier, it's always interesting as a history teacher to watch my students struggle with and come to terms with the language of nationalism and patriotism that course through many of these early letters.  Even in midst of overseas conflict many of my students find it difficult to imagine sacrificing their lives for a cause greater than themselves.  The challenge, of course, is to approach someone like this father who does voluntarily leave his wife and children for the good of the nation and without a guarantee that he will return.  It's as if my students are asking, "Who are these people?"

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8 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2008 @ 13:01

    Carmex, — With all due respect, that’s not much of an explanation of anything. In fact, it suggests that you’ve read very little about why men on both sides of the Potomac joined the ranks.

    Note: Your first comment was deleted since it failed to add anything of substance to the discussion. Future comments will be deleted if it continues and you will eventually be banned from commenting. I welcome comments of all sorts, but they must add to the discussion in a constructive manner. Thank you.

  • Carmex Sep 22, 2008 @ 12:47

    I think the best explanation of the War is the old story about the Yankee invader who asked a Southron (I’m paraphrasing, can’t remember the exact words) “So why are you fighting anyhow?” To which the Southron replied “Because y’all are here.” That was the gist of it. My ancestors were invaded so they defended themselves – thankfully saving our town from being burned to the ground by Federal calvary forces at one point. You’re also overlooking the tens of thousands of Europeans who had no real stake in the war but were sent south to destroy Dixie by the Union. Lots of them got off their boats and jumped right in line to join the Federal military due to the pay. These to my mind were basically mercenaries – fighting for money, not country. Later the same Federal Army used to destroy, burn and rape its way across Dixie was unleashed upon the poor Plains Indian tribes – which were either eradicated or put on worthless land. All part of the of Northern/Federal aggression which now the entire world is all too familiar with (Iraq, Afghanistan, Serbia, etc). The Empire marches on!

  • Kevin Levin Sep 17, 2008 @ 19:17

    Craig, — Thanks for the suggestion. I will definitely check it out.

    TF, — Some great suggestions. I plan on having my students read at least two essays on Civil War soldiers next week, but other than that we must move on. I am playing with the idea of structuring my course around soldier life for next year.

    Paul, — Great point. A few of my students have expressed concern over the handling of the War in Iraq and the politicization of sacrifice and nationalism. I sometimes forget that my juniors and seniors have been shaped by the post-9/11 period.

  • Paul Sep 17, 2008 @ 17:11

    Hi Kevin,

    Great series of posts! One thought in particular really stood out for me. The one where you wrote, “Even in midst of overseas conflict many of my students find it difficult to imagine sacrificing their lives for a cause greater than themselves.”

    Is it possible, just maybe, that an influential part of late twentieth, early twenty-first century American culture has taught our youth that there is no cause greater than yourself? Especially if said cause is of a military nature?

    That said, the sentiments evoked by that soldier were far, far from universal. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my non-military study of the Civil War, it’s that northern homefront debate over the war’s legitimacy, rational and course was every bit as contentious as our current mideast conflicts.

    Just wondering “out loud”…


  • TF Smith Sep 17, 2008 @ 13:16

    Is the Sullivan Ballou letter too obvious? I think it is in Vol. I of Catton’s AOTP trilogy, among other sources.

    On the question of preservation of the union vis a vis its dissolution, worth pointing out is that a constant thread in American strategic thinking, from the period of the Revolution onward, was trying to avoid the fate of the German and Italian states and (later) South America – multiple nation states open to intervention and manipulation by the Great Powers.

    To me, this underlies the US involvement (military and political) on the fringes of the European wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, inclduing the Quasi-war with France, the Louisiana Purchase, the Monroe Doctrine, the acquisition of Florida, and the 1812-15 war in North America. It is the strategic foundation of Manifest Destiny, the 1846-48 war with Mexico, and the destruction of the independence of the native peoples of the Old Northwest and Southwest and the northern and souther Great Plains.

    In 1861, remember, it was not just memories of the Revolutionary generation for the Union men; there were men at the highest levels of the United States Army (Scott, Wool, Dix, Totten, & Patterson, among others) who had fought the British in 1812-15; in addition, there were huge numbers of men (most of the West Pointers who returned to the colors in 1861, for example) who had come of age during the expansion of suffrage and the Jacksonian Era. They would, I expect, have seen the planter elites of the South as anti-democratic/anti-meritocratic in the extreme, and as opening the country to European intervention.

    Also worth considering is how the 1st generation immigrants to the US, notably the Irish (Patterson, Corcoran, Meagher, etc); Germans of the ’48-er type (Sigel, Schurz, Willich); and the French of republican or even Orleanist leanings (de Trobriand, Joinville, the Orleans brothers, etc), would have perceived the South as anti-republican, especially given its dalliances with the British and French.

    I’d also suggest focusing on the very real differences in the 19th C. context between liberalism (ie, small-d democrats and small-r republicans) vis a vis conservatives (ie, proponents of autocracy, oligarchy and absolutism); this certainly played out in many locations other than the United States between 1861-65 (Germany, Italy, and South America, obviously) and shows a shared Western value that brought men as diverse as Willich, an actual self-avowed Communist, and those with the attitudes and background of Winfield Scott or John Wool together in the same Army.

    Scott is another interesting case; the loyalty of older southern-born regulars (Farragut comes to mind) as opposed to the disloyalty of the younger southerners (Jackson, Longstreet, etc.) There have been some interesting studies of generational differences between Southern-born West Pointers and professional naval officers in terms of whether they remained loyal or went south. Terrill (spelling?) is an interesting case study among the younger southerners.

    “Lincoln’s Loyalists” makes the case that almost as many southerners were loyal (counting the population of the border states, WV, deep south Unionists, and African-Americans) as were disloyal in 1861-65; which certainly turns the idea of loyalties in the South on its head.

    As a counterfactual, in a free election in 1861 using post-1964 civil and voting rights standards, would secession have even been a majority decision in any CSA state?

  • Craig Sep 17, 2008 @ 6:24

    If you look up the 12th Wisconsin at and click on newspapers you can pull up the correspondence of Charles Waldo, a newspaperman in West Bend who enlisted quite enthusiastically at the outset of the war and wrote frequent dispatches to his former employer for publication through the first two or more years of the war. He was a quartermaster with his outfit and was in the know not just with respect to the larder but to all of the regimental gossip, as well, and as a newspaper editor he knew who was who in his unit. Fervently patriotic at the outset, his correspondence breaks off around the time that his unit was veteranized in May, 1864, in preparation for Atlanta and the march to the sea. He stayed with his unit for the three years of his enlistment, a term that ended in November of ’64, but he stopped reporting around May. He’d had a chance to re-up and didn’t which appears to have more or less made him a “copperhead” by default. It’s a shame he didn’t provide an account of Atlanta and the early stages of the march as that was the highlight of the 12th’s otherwise fairly mundane war. A very colorful and engaging writer, it appears he became as disillusioned with journalism as he was with the war by the time it was through with him. Nothing turns up on the internet to suggest that he continued his writing career after the war.

  • Jarret Sep 16, 2008 @ 23:12

    And the Southern states leaving the Union to form a nation based on the preservation and expansion of racial slavery is like a man who hates his wife and beats her to express his rage.


  • Dan McCown Sep 16, 2008 @ 17:23

    Can a person make the argument that the Southern states which did secede were not trying to destroy the United States, but were simply wanting to leave. The United States would still exist, but with less states. The Federal government making war on the South in order to hold them in the Union has always seemed like a man who loves his wife so much he beats her if she tries to leave.


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