There Are No Monuments To Deserters on Civil War Battlefields

Regardless of the assumptions and background knowledge that we bring, the presence of monuments on our Civil War battlefields may be one of the greatest obstacles to understanding the full range of soldier experiences. The monuments allow us to focus in on the most heroic stories and themes, which no doubt reinforces feelings of national pride and an understanding of what kind of behavior is expected. Such a focus, however, comes at the price of ignoring moments when soldiers fall short of what is expected of them in the heat of battle. Normally, we can safely ignore such moments, but it’s not so easy when one is thrust on us as is the case of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who reportedly abandoned his station in Afghanistan and spent five years as a Taliban Prisoner of War.

My friend, Peter Carmichael, is fond of promoting Civil War battlefields as places where Americans can ponder the past ten-plus years of a nation at war. This can be an incredibly fruitful approach to impressing upon visitors many of the connections between the Civil War era and the past two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was something that I tried to emphasize when touring battlefields with my students in Virginia. It’s hard not to see the influence of the past decade on scholarship having to do with the struggles of Civil War veterans and especially on the havoc that battlefields played on the human body. The most recent issue of The Civil War Monitor includes a one-legged veteran on the cover with the title, “Broken Soldiers” highlighted. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that this influence of historians extends at all to the broader society.

The bitter and divided response over Bergdahl’s release is for me the clearest indication that Americans remain woefully disconnected from war. As much as I admire the goals of a Carmichael-style battlefield tour let’s at least start by admitting that since 2003 we have in no way carried ourselves collectively as a nation at war. Once war was declared in both Afghanistan and Iraq we were perfectly content as a nation with utilizing a volunteer force. We celebrated the patriotism of the many men and women who volunteered and we were perfectly content to sit by and not worry about the multiple tours of duty carried out by so many. I for one can talk all day about the life of the Civil War soldier and I am embarrassed to admit that I can say next to nothing about military life in camp, on the march and in battle in the two most recent theaters of war.

I don’t remember reading any Facebook updates commenting on Bergdahl’s decision to join the military nor do I remember any commentary when he was captured or at any point in the last five years of his captivity. We could go on with our lives with no concern for Bergdahl at all and yet the moment he was released we all had something to say. Yesterday I made the mistake of getting involved in a Facebook thread in which the author claimed that Bergdahl was not a POW. I asked if there was any evidence. Had I missed something in my reading? What I got in return for my question was re-direction and suspicion, not to mention a personal attack from a Civil War historian who recently published a book in which he accuses others of rushing to judgment about a certain Confederate general. I doubt that either of these individuals ever gave Bergdahl a moment of thought before this past week. That was par for the course given the wild accusations made about Bergdahl that could be found across social media and even on mainstream news.

Walking on Civil War battlefields I sometimes have to remind myself that not everyone (including the wounded) marched in close order forward toward the enemy. Many likely succumbed to their fears and dropped to the ground, sought cover or simply ran in the opposite direction. Even beyond the battlefield itself we know that many soldiers fell short of the martial ideal. Those us who are serious about history and the experiences of these men know to tread carefully when dealing with these moments. We know that there is a context in which to interpret specific moments in the life of the Civil War soldier, not with the goal of judging the individual in question, but with the hope that some kind of understanding is possible. We have an obligation to tread carefully as historians, but as Americans we owe it to these men who ultimately contributed to the preservation of the Union.

We have a similar responsibility to Sergeant Bergdahl. Those of you for whatever reason choose to reduce Bergdahl’s military experience down to one moment do him and every other service member a huge disservice. If we cared little for what these men and women experienced while in combat and now as many struggle to readjust to civilian life, we can at least do whatever it takes to ensure that they don’t become the next poster child in our ongoing political partisan warfare.

How do we do that? We can start by educating ourselves about the soldiers experience in its totality over the past decade. Maybe that would truly prepare us as a nation to thank our fellow citizens for all that they have done.

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21 comments… add one
  • Craig L. Jun 10, 2014 @ 14:10

    I know from researching my own ancestor in the Civil War that he was thirty-eight when he enlisted in the last year of the war. He enlisted on the same day with six other men. Two of them were about his age, near forty years old. I know at least one of the other three was about nineteen years old and I surmise that the other two were probably about the same age, youths who were too young to go when the regiment was formed. My ancestor was a Prussian by birth and didn’t immigrate until he was 29. My guess would be he had to wait until he had fulfilled his military obligations to Prussia before he could travel. So he probably had some military experience there comparable to what we would call the reserves, reporting for training and indoctrination on a periodic schedule until his eligibility and obligation for service lapsed.

    I think my ancestor enlisted to fight in the Civil War because it was clear to him that the war was nearly over and because his wife’s younger brother, a nineteen year old, had enlisted eight months earlier and had already been scheduled for discharge with full disability for what may have seemed like a relatively minor war wound. He was shot in the left shoulder in the Battle of Atlanta serving with a newly “veteranized” regiment, roughly half seasoned combat veterans and half raw recruits. Bald Hill, where he was wounded, was the second time his unit saw action after redeployment. Their first action was at Kennesaw Mountain, but only two or three companies in the regiment took part. The others got to watch and provide cover from a distance for the troops who had taken and briefly held an entrenched position. It was essentially a dress rehearsal on a smaller scale for what took place a month later at Bald Hill, when the position was not just taken, but held. The dynamic between veterans and green recruits portrayed in Crane’s novel was indispensable for me in making sense of what transpired in those engagements.

  • London John Jun 10, 2014 @ 7:06

    Does anyone who knows have any comment on the depiction of a Civil War soldier simply walking away and then coming back and becoming a hero in The Red Badge of Courage? I think it’s interesting that the actor who played The Youth in the film (Audie Murphy) was a genuine hero of WW2. I don’t know how much Murphy’s experience fed into the character.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jun 9, 2014 @ 9:47

    I read in North & South magazine once that there were times when a man could be the bravest soldier on the field in one battle and then the biggest coward in the next battle. So some of those deserters may actually have monuments.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2014 @ 10:03

      The article was written by Reid Mitchell, who is the author of a very good book titled, Civil War Soldiers.

    • H. Donald Capps Jun 9, 2014 @ 19:48

      It is interesting that war and soldiers has become to mean combat and warriors to most Americans. One need only to scan the records and note that the numbers of those listed as missing in various battles of the Civil War also includes those whose simply walked away from the battle — and even the war in some cases. It is very easy to be heroic or brave when not faced with the grim reality of actually being in combat. Someone once made the comment that bravery is situational while courage is eternal; and the two are not synonymous, the point Mitchell (and others) have tried to make.

      I am part of the maybe 1% of the 10% to maybe 20% of those who actually experienced combat in Viet-Nam, being a member of a Lurp, Ranger or SF unit (unfortunately, I manged to hit the trifecta) and seeing action on a routine and (far too) frequent basis. It is brutal. I also spent 3 1/2 years in SWA (Southwest Asia) in both Iraq and Afghanistan and was quite happy to be a REMF — although I did manage to be out on patrols that got hit by both small arms fire and IEDs — it being my choice to do so, meaning that I had not gotten any smarter over the years — as well as the usual rocket and mortar attacks. As in Viet-Nam, the Fobbits far outnumbered those who actually ran patrols & raids or were on convoy duty.

      In reality, few soldiers (or marines or sailors and certainly even fewer airmen) are warriors. Combat is an anomaly for the vast majority of people in uniform. Sustained combat is even rarer. After about the third time I got shot down or the second or third time I got hit in Viet-Nam, my attitude regarding REMFs had undergone a complete change — I wanted to be one!

      I can easily understand someone walking away from combat. If there is any glory it, sorry, but it certainly eluded me. All I wanted to do was live long enough to have my 23rd birthday, and I was fortunate that the NVA/VC marksmanship was generally rather poor because it certainly was not the tactical brilliance of my leaders or myself that allow me to be writing this many years later.

      Two books related to this topic: Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War by Meredith Lair and Enduring Battle: American Soldiers in Three Wars, 1776-1945 by Christopher Hamner, both on the history faculty of George Mason University. (An unsolicited plug for my department…)

      Very nice essay, far better than most of the loathsome dribble I have read regarding SGT Bergdahl, especially from those in the chickenhawk category, who seem to always be thanking us for our service with rarely a clue as to what that service actually entails. This is one of the reasons I usually look at someone thanking me for my service and just stare at them as they were an idiot since it has become such a trite, meaningless phrase. (Okay, I still have the arrogance of the combat troop, which is really nothing more than a way of coping with things often beyond the comprehension of virtually most Americans — thank goodness!).

      • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2014 @ 1:27

        Thank you very much for adding your perspective to this discussion and for the book reference.

  • Buck Buchanan Jun 9, 2014 @ 6:21

    ****making Homer Simpson DOH! sound***

    I went to high school with Mark Levin.

    I of course meant Kevin!

    My apologies!

    • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2014 @ 6:27

      LOL. I thought you had made a mistake, but didn’t want to take credit until I was sure. Thanks for the kind words.

  • Buck Buchanan Jun 9, 2014 @ 6:13

    As usual, very well done and exceptionally disturbing in its stark reality as it hits home.

    It should be mandatory reading in every office in Washington.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2014 @ 6:16

      Not sure who you are addressing this to. Who is Mark?

  • Ben Allen Jun 9, 2014 @ 5:58

    One of my goals of my Facebook military history postings is to convey the stories of those figures who “fell short of the martial ideal.” It is an attempt on my part to indirectly discredit all those right- and left-wing patriotic romantics who believe that every soldier fighting in their various causes was brave, loyal, and not tainted by self-interest (the exception, at times, being the conscripts). Of course, in the case of the American Civil War, it is the balloons of the Lost Cause and, to perhaps a lesser extent, the Emancipationist school that I try to burst, implicitly and explicitly. Lost Causers especially seem to believe that virtually every southerner was a gallant patriot who stood by their generals and that all of the Confederacy was united in fighting against the invader. My postings are definitely not monuments to them, but they try to ensure that the tales of deserters, drunks, cowards, and shirkers are not ignored.

  • Brad Jun 9, 2014 @ 5:49

    A wonderful essay indeed. I’ve never served either and my sense of things that after the freshness of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan had worn off, most Americans treated it as another news story and there never seemed to be much concern nationally over the men and women fighting “over there.” There never seemed to be any feeling that we were fighting a war unlike, for instance, Vietnam where there was always a feeling that we were. I suppose the difference is that this is a volunteer force whereas in Vietnam we had a draft and anyone could be chosen. I was slated to go in 1973 after graduating college (as I had a very low number in the lottery — 24) but then the war ended and I was spared.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2014 @ 6:00

      Thanks for the kind words, Brad.

  • Matt Harrell Jun 8, 2014 @ 17:54

    My personal thoughts on the soldier aside, this was an incredible essay. Mr. Levin, you’ve hit the nail on the head; 99% of America has not served and therefore does not understand the mentality of those who have. A smaller percentage have actually been deployed and smaller yet again have seen combat. Those who have not been there cannot share nor understand. I would say that a combat veteran has more in common with his enemy than the rest of America.

    Truth be told I don’t really know where I am going with this, so I’ll stop. But I do want to say that I appreciate this piece of writing. It’s the first time a civilian has written about veterans and the war and actually admitted there’s a disconnect. I truly appreciate that.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2014 @ 0:52

      So nice to hear from you on this one and thank you for your service to this country. I know it has become sort of a cliche to say that, but as a former student, I truly mean it.

  • Wayne W. S. Hsieh Jun 8, 2014 @ 15:44

    If you want a good view of the current wars, I would try the movie _Restrepo_, *and* read the book version by Sebastian Junger, simply titled _War_. That being said, Restrepo is arguably a very *non* representative view of the recent wars, with its focus on a spectacularly (and abnormally) violent slice of the American war in Afghanistan (a small combat outpost in the Korengal Valley). And while I certainly don’t think Junger was trying to do this–he was simply trying to portray what he saw, and what he saw *was* spectacularly violent–my guess is that a lot of viewers of Restrepo see in it what much our culture tends to associate with wartime service–PTSD, psychic damage, pointless suffering, troops as victims, etc.–the flip side of the view that everyone in uniform is a “hero,” even if they were the Army LtCol I saw at the Pentagon shortly after my State Dept. tour in Iraq who was walking around without a combat patch in 2010. For many a staff officer who’s served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the greatest foe to be fought was stultifying boredom and red tape.

    The following I personally think is a great piece on American views of veterans, and how those views don’t really encapsulate the complexity of recent military service:

    • Kevin Levin Jun 8, 2014 @ 15:53

      Really nice to hear from you and thanks for the recommendations. I read Dexter Filkins’s book, The Good Soldiers, but it didn’t get me very far.

  • Chris Jun 8, 2014 @ 11:05

    He’s got an unbelievable story. I worked up a pretty good sized research project on him during grad school that I need to finish at some point. I wrote this shortened blurb on the park website.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 8, 2014 @ 11:11


  • Chris Jun 8, 2014 @ 10:56

    For what it’s worth – the folks at Andersonville NHS have been talking about Bergdahl for several years now and periodically sharing Facebook updates on him. Now, it is an a-typical Civil War site in that is also the National Prisoner of War Museum, so his story falls within the interpretive umbrella.

    Technically speaking, he never was legally a POW under the formal definition of the term, which requires that you be held by a recognized power and signatory of the Geneva Conventions. So he was always classified as “Missing-Captured,” a vague phrase that means the same thing as POW for him but without tying the nation into a foreign policy legal framework and guidelines for the men that we hold in Guantanamo. But again – that definition is a reflection of not anything that he did, but rather of when and where he was captured and by whom.

    Also – there is actually one monument to a “deserter” related to the Civil War. Dorence Atwater. Atwater was captured just after Gettysburg and quickly accepted a parole in Richmond overseeing supplies coming from the north. Then after his transfer to Andersonville he accepted a parole to work in the hospital. In this capacity he began to copy the death register, which he smuggled out for publication. But in a dispute over ownership of that list he was arrested, court-martialed, and jailed by the US Government, although he was later pardoned.

    Fast forward to 1905 when his hometown wanted to erect a monument to him for his efforts to identify the Andersonville dead. On Sept. 1, the following appeared in the Hartford Courant:

    Thompson Post of Terryville Not in Sympathy with the Project
    Members Regard Him as a Deserter
    He was Courtmartialed and Imprisoned by the Government

    The agitation against the erection of a memorial to Dorrence Atwater, first related in “The Courant” of a recent date, has taken more definite form in formal action by the local Grand Army post, which has put itself on record as not in sympathy with the project. Several Grant Army men who are opposed to the Atwater Memorial, say that they regard Atwater as little better than a deserter…

    The monument was erected anyway. It’s not a clear comparison, but the criticism sounds strangely familiar.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 8, 2014 @ 11:04

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the additional information. This is the first I’ve heard of Atwater.

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