Tag Archives: secondary source

“I saw no dead man that night whose pockets had not been turned inside out”

Frank Wilkeson (Mathew Brady: c. 1864)

Frank Wilkeson has provided a first-hand account of a rank-and-file Union soldier in his memoir Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac. In his preface, he immediately states that the purpose of his memoir is to show what the war was really like and that he was not “inspired by vanity or jealousy” or to “repair damaged or wholly ruined military reputations” (xiii) like the well-known histories of the war. He acts as the spokesman for the men who he believes truly fought and won the battles: the private soldiers. He specified two main grudges he held against the war the Union conducted the war: the use of volunteers instead of inscription, and the very existence of West Point officers in the field. He emphasized fully on his hatred of West Point and its officers. His vendetta against West Point is chilling and blunt. He denied the soldiering abilities of the West Point officers and went so far as blaming the failures of the Union during the war on these men who, in his eyes, “were commanders, but they were not soldiers”, for soldiers “are not the products of schools” (xvii).

The chapter in which he described the Battle of the Wilderness provided a particularly interesting insight to the war. Wilkeson knowingly left his battery due to lack of action and went towards the battle. He graphically described the moment when he “saw the elephant” – a phrase for the awesome and gruesome experience of the soldiers’ first exposure to war as presented by historian James McPherson in the book’s introduction – and realized that he was in danger when he heard bullets hitting the trees next to him and saw the of a dead officer who had a bullet hole in his forehead out from which his “brain oozed” (62). This first-hand account is indispensible to accounting the story of the Civil War and adds a personal note to the total casualty count that is simply recited as if those numbers were only numbers, and not the lives of men.


Later in the same chapter, Wilkeson described the Confederate men he saw slain on the ground. He seemed to pity their lack of resources and their poverty, but stated, “they fought…like men of purely American blood” (70). This sentiment, along with the chilling account of facing battle, adds a personal note to a part of history that is so deeply studied. Wilkeson felt a bond with his fellow common soldier, albeit that other soldier was his enemy. This kind of identification with a Confederate solider from a Union one should be scrutinized, seeing as it was accounted after the war and Wilkeson’s opinions may have changed.

Wilkeson’s memoir shows a gritty personal experience in comparison to the laudable accounts of military generals. He provided his own brute honesty and supposed true emotions and accounts of events he experienced. His memoir is a bottom-up view of the war instead of a top-down down one, and despite personal bias, limitations due to memory loss, change of opinion, or simple mistake, his accounts of his time as a private solider in Grant’s Army recounted what seemed to be the experience of many of Grant’s men in his 1864 Overland Campaign.

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Animals, Cannon Fodder, or Men?

Currier & Ives, “Gallant Charge of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts (Colored) Regiment”

To the slaveholders in the South and to many whites in the North, African Americans were not regarded as people, but as property. This was a heavy blow to the black society as a whole, but was especially troublesome to black men. The denial of their manhood by white society proposed the question of what manhood really was.  Was it someone “born…with manhood” or was it earned? Did it mean something different to black men than it did to white men (77)? How did fighting in the war entitle black men to a label of manliness? Jim Cullen addresses these questions in his essay “’I’s a Man Now’: Gender and African American Men” in Clinton and Silber’s Divided Houses.

The scholarly study of gender is largely a modern phenomenon, but it is helpful to lay the groundwork of gender studies while reading a source dealing with 19th century gender constructs. Sex is biologically determined due to the presence of XX/XY chromosomes and the function of sex organs (usually determined as male or female, with a small percentage of people being born as intersex), while gender is the social construct, norms, and behaviors associated with a sex. Gender is a fluid spectrum and not just male or female, allowing a full scale of options for identification. A person may choose to be gender fluid or gender queer if they feel that they do not fully identify with the male or female gender. Further, a person who is biologically male and identifies as so may also choose to identify as “femme” – a term often used to describe homosexual males who identify as male but are more effeminate than what is deemed normal for male gender identification by greater society. This normalization is based upon structured gender roles: men are strong defenders of the family while women swoon into men’s arms and take care of the children and the home. During the Civil War, many men enlisted and went off to fight, fulfilling the expectations of the male gender. However, these men were always white men, fighting a “white man’s war” (78). How did the black men feel about their denial of manhood and male identification?

Black males were not completely ignored in the war effort, for they found work in the Confederate war machine…yet were denied admission into the Union forces. Why, then, would a black man ever choose to fight at all? The North offered a life of privileges that must “be guarded, if not expanded” and if one were to refuse to fight, it would be “unpatriotic, nay mean and unmanly” to do so (79). The very concept of battle was manly, and the best way for black men to show white men that they were “equal in war as well as peace” (80) was to enlist, but this action was still barred until the First Confiscation Act of 1862. Regardless of official policy, many black men chose to weaken the Confederate infrastructure by engaging in guerrilla warfare, escaping plantations, and/or becoming “contraband” under Butler’s 1861 decree. After Lincoln’s 1862 preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, African American status became the pinnacle of the war effort.

Black men now joined the Union forces with deliberate speed, “possessing the means – and promised a worthy end” (81), finally able to prove themselves to the rest of America. Frederick Douglass promoted enlistment as a surefire way for African American men to obtain citizenship as well as secure “manhood and freedom” (81). The issue of black enlistment was both supported and rejected by the white masses. Those who supported it did so either because they truly believed in the right to fight, or would rather just see black men die in place of white men. Those who opposed enlistment felt in such a way due to racism and their refusal to treat blacks as victors and with “all decent and becoming respect” (82). Many African American soldiers were not allowed to become commissioned officers and received about one-half of the salary attributed to whites. A black commander wrote to the Governor of Massachusetts telling him that he and his men would rather fight without payment if it meant having to “acknowledge that because they have African blood in their veins, they are less men, than those who have saxon” (84).

Men of Color! To Arms! To Arms! (Philadelphia, 1863)

The metamorphosis of a black man turning into a “man” nullified the belief that such a person could be considered property or an animal – an enormous blow to the peculiar institution of slavery. Further, it changed the African American family dynamic. The black man’s newfound manhood would strengthen his authority in his home and allowed him to practice the “intellectual, emotional, and temperamental traits of manhood” (90) previously denied to him in slavery, where he had lost the ability to control his own life. Now, he had the ability to control not only his life, but to oversee his family.

Cullen’s piece highlights the dehumanization aspect of slavery and how desperately black men wished to be seen as humans in the eyes of whites. These men fought “for the right to kill and be killed” (82) and despite all of their mortal sacrifices, which were seen as the “zenith of manhood”, black men “were still dismissed as less than men” (88). Finally, with the removal of enlistment restrictions and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, black men finally staked their rightful claim as men, not slaves, not animals, but American men who fought and sacrificed to save the Union and free themselves while struggling to live up to the social constructs of manhood and the male gender identity.

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From The Soft Finger to the Hard Hand: The Evolution of the Union’s Civilian Policy

Atlanta ruins after Sherman’s March (George Bernard, c. 1864)

In The Hard Hand of War, Mark Grimsley addresses the evolution of Union military policy towards Southern civilians and specifies three separate phases of policy: conciliatory, pragmatic, and hard war. This policy changed with the Union’s changing war aim from the defense of the Union to the abolition of slavery and every stepping stone in between. The hard war policy came to a head after the failure to break the Confederacy by both respectful occupation and concentration on the battlefield. For hard war, the focus shifted to the destruction of the Confederate infrastructure and the confiscation of private citizens’ property, especially though who outright supported the Confederate cause.

By definition, conciliation means to placate or pacify, and the Union military policy aimed to do just that. Under the advice of the “slavocracy”, or the Slave Power Conspiracy, the one-fourth of the white population that owned slaves had the rest under their rule and were forcing them into agreeing with secession and diminishing their already small voice in the matter. Thus, “[invading] the South with fire and sword” (9) was an unnecessary action, seeing as the power resided in the Southern planter class. Furthermore, it was believed that the “rebellion lacked popular support” (10) and the Union military had to be soft towards the general Confederate civilian so that they would not be fueled against the Union and begin to support the rebellion. The guidelines established in Emmerich de Vattel’s The Law of Nations also prescribed a conciliatory policy towards civilians, especially if the Union wanted their support and their willingness to come back. He warned against devastation, for “those who tear up the vines and cut down the fruit trees, are looked upon as savage barbarians…They desolate a country for many years to come, and beyond what their own safety requires” as well as “inflame the minds of the contending parties with increasing animosity.” According to Vattel, all that could be taken from enemy civilians was that “which may augment his strength and enable him to make war” (15). This was, for the most part, observed by Union troops. After the Seven Days Battle for Richmond in the summer of 1862, the Union government as well as the morale of the people needed a new policy that would call for a harder military strategy.

The Stampede (Casemate Museum: Harper’s Weekly, August 17, 1861)

The pragmatic period of military strategy focused on the battlefield rather than the civilian. Much policy was up to the discretion of the commanding officer and depended on what worked best in a current situation with an eye towards military necessity. In 1861, Major General Benjamin Butler extended refuge towards runaway slaves at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He claimed these slaves as “contraband of war” and gave military necessity to the confiscation of slaves “used in direct support of the Confederate war effort” (123) as codified in the First Confiscation Act. However, when Major General John Frémont ordered the confiscation of property and complete emancipation of slaves from those supporting the Confederacy by use of guerrilla warfare, Lincoln completely rejected his actions, citing the lack of military necessity to permanently confiscate their slaves. While Butler deemed his refugees “contraband of war”, it gave the feeling of impermanence while also benefitting the Union’s war aim but the permanent solution for slavery must be addressed “according to laws made by law-makers, and not by military proclamations” (124). The respect previously held for the property of private civilians had diminished and emancipation had finally become intertwined in Union military policy. These two elements called for an even more intense military plan.

The hard hand of war came down after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. With the legalization of black troops, the Union had motivation to bring the backbone of the Confederate infrastructure into the Union’s grasp and thus completely undermine the economic structure of the Confederacy. The loss of the slave power and support of the war effort not only hurt the Confederacy, but also helped the Union when those slaves joined Union military ranks. The Union further attempted to put an end to Confederate progress by enacting preventative measure by the way of raids ensuring the inability of Confederate troops to acquire necessary provisions, most famously done by Major General William Sherman. Most importantly, emancipation was seen as the best way to dismantle Confederate infrastructure and unless the Union destroyed the Confederacy, they would “become slaves themselves” (141). The goal now was to conquer the Confederates by any means necessary, including the confiscation of property from all civilians, regardless of their level of affiliation or support of the rebellion.

The difference Grimsley draws between hard war and total war is imperative to understanding the 19th-century hard war philosophy. Though hard war does involve all aspects of a society, it denotes the destruction of all of these societal aspects, while total war denotes the mobilization. It also embodies the elements of war with the goal of the “erosion of the enemy’s will to resist by deliberately…subjecting the civilian population to the pressures of war” (5).

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Why Are We Still Arguing Over This? (or: It Wasn’t Just Slavery, Now Stop It!)

Currier & Ives political cartoon, 1864 (Library of Congress)

Growing up on the border of Virginia and North Carolina, I learned quite a bit about the Civil War, most of it revolving around the mantra: “The South will rise again!” and the notion of Northern aggression. But why it fell in the first place is a question that not one of my peers who proudly attached Confederate flags to their trucks could answer with full confidence. “It was slavery!” they would exclaim, “The Northerners wanted to take away the backbone of our economy!” Funnily enough, most of these proud Sons of the Confederacy were Northern transplants with parents in the military stationed at Norfolk or Oceana. Nevertheless, it isn’t just in sweet old Chesapeake (boasting proximity to the famous Battle of Ironclads in 1862) that slavery was the accepted answer for why the Civil War happened. In his article entitled “What Caused the Civil War?” Edward Ayers explains why, as a society, we accept the most simple and sensible answer as legitimate. He then explores the truly multifaceted answer of what really caused the Civil War and why it happened when it did.

Ayers begins the piece with recapping a scene from The Simpsons where a character is asked to answer the question of what caused the Civil War. He begins to explain it in detail, but is interrupted and asked to just say slavery. With the use of this cultural staple, Ayers reiterates his point that we know the Civil War was caused by more than just slavery, but we’ve accepted it because there are so many correct answers, but slavery is the easiest for us to understand. Ayers addresses the difficulty in reaching a consensus on a comprehensive answer by exploring two different schools of thought: fundamentalist and revisionist. The fundamentalists hold strongly onto the driving force of slavery as the cause of the Civil War and that such a conflict was inevitable (132). Revisionists, however, focus on other facets of Antebellum society such as the fragmentation of the Democratic Party (and thus the true two-party system) and the election of anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln as President as some major events leading to the tipping point. Both of these groups are correct, but not correct enough.

Walt Handelsman, 2000

Ayers presents the case that the Civil War was a result of many different issues – all intertwined. Slavery was “the most profound [problem] the nation has ever faced’ (134), as it encompassed so many other facets of Antebellum society. In order to understand the causes of the Civil War, one must study history from that time’s perspective, not a modern one. Ayers calls this “deep contingency” (143) and emphasizes the necessity of understanding Antebellum society as a whole in order to truly know what caused the Civil War. One cannot simply answer the question of “what caused the Civil War?” especially with just one phrase such as “slavery” or “states rights”. As Ayers says, “History does not fit on a bumper sticker” (143).

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