A Look at The View From The Ground, Part 1

Aaron Sheehan-Dean (editor). The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers (New Directions in Southern History). The University Press of Kentucky (December 22, 2006). 272 pages., notes, selected bibliography. ISBN: 978-0-8131-2413-1 $40.00 (Hardcover w/DJ).

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ll be looking at the essays contained in The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers, synthesizing the research of these authors and adding my own comments as well. This should be the first of three posts on the topic.


In the Introduction, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, the editor of the book, lays out the main themes of The View from the Ground and summarizes the advances of soldier studies since the early 1980’s, at which point the topic was almost wholly unheard of and lacked much serious study. He concludes:

All these essays convey two important lessons about the history of the Civil War. They show that the war as a subject of study holds real promise for new and insightful research. Even more important, by exploring the connections between the experience of the war and the larger world of nineteenth-century America, they demonstrate how rewarding that research can be.

I’ll keep this definition in mind as I read through the various essays in the book.

“The Blue and the Gray in Black and White: Assessing the Scholarship on Civil War Soldiers”
by Aaron Sheehan-Dean

Since Dr. Sheehan-Dean’s effort is primarily a bibliographic essay and synthesis of the field of Civil War soldier studies, I thought it might be interesting to readers to simply present a list of the books and authors he names (with links to Amazon). This should give those new to the subject of soldier studies a great place to start.

  1. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy by Bell Irvin Wiley
  2. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union by Bell Irvin Wiley
  3. Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy by Albert Burton Moore
  4. Desertion During the Civil War by Ella Lonn
  5. Plain Folk of the Old South by Frank Lawrence Owsley
  6. “The Confederate Man as Fighting Man” by David Donald in Journal of Southern History 6 (February 1940): 24-45
  7. “The Pay of Confederate Troops and Problems of Demoralization” by Harry N. Scheiber in Civil War History 15 (September 1969): 226-36
  8. “A ‘Face of Battle’ Needed: An Assessment of Motives and Men in Civil War Historiography” by Marvin R. Cain in Civil War History 28 (1982): 5-27
  9. “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War? Some Preliminary Demographic Speculations” by Maris A. Vinovskis in Journal of American History 76 (June 1989): 39-45
  10. The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaign by Joseph T. Glatthaar
  11. Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences by Reid Mitchell
  12. Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War by Gerald Linderman
  13. The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 by Mark Grimsley
  14. “Seeing the Elephant”: Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh by Joseph Allen Frank and George A. Reaves
  15. The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat by Earl J. Hess
  16. “A Test Case of the ‘Crying Evil’: Desertion among North Carolina Troops during the Civil War” by Richard A. Reid in North Carolina Historical Review 58 (1981): 234-62
  17. “The Role of the Community in Civil War Desertion” by Judith Lee Halleck in Civil War History 29 (June 1983): 123-34
  18. “Conscription and Conflict on the Texas Frontier, 1863-1865” by David P. Smith in Civil War History 36 (September 1990): 250-61
  19. “Civil War Desertion from a Black Belt Regiment: An Examination of the 44th Virginia Infantry” by Kevin C. Ruffner in The Edge of the South: Life in Nineteenth Century Virginia edited by Edward L. Ayers and John C. Willis
  20. A Higher Duty: Desertion among Georgia Troops during the Civil War by Mark Weitz
  21. Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North by Melinda Lawson
  22. North over South: Northern Nationalism and American Identity in the Antebellum Era by Mary-Susan Grant
  23. Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861-1865 by William A. Blair
  24. Rich Man’s War: Class, Caste, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley by David Williams
  25. Lincoln’s Loyalists: Union Soldiers from the Confederacy by Richard Nelson Current
  26. Secret Yankees: The Union Circle in Confederate Atlanta by Thomas G. Dyer
  27. Loyalty and Loss: Alabama’s Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction by Margaret Storey
  28. Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South by Drew Gilpin Faust
  29. A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868 by Anne Sarah Rubin
  30. A Shield and Hiding Place: The Religious Life of Civil War Armies by Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr.
  31. Christ in Camp: Or, Religion in Lee’s Army by J. William Jones
  32. “Christian Soldiers: The Meaning of Revivalism in the Confederate Army” by Drew Gilpin Faust in Journal of Southern History 53 (February 1987): 63-90
  33. “Religion and Combat Motivation in the Confederate Armies by Samuel J. Watson in Journal of Military History 58 (January 1994): 52
  34. “‘Rendering Aid and Comfort’: Images of Fatherhood in the Letters of Civil War Soldiers from Massachusetts and Michigan” by Stephen M. Frank in Journal of Social History 26 (fall 1992): 5-32
  35. “Fatherhood in the Confederacy: Southern Soldiers and Their Children” by James Marten in Journal of Southern History 63 (May 1997): 279
  36. The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home by Reid Mitchell
  37. The Civil War as a Crisis in Gender: Augusta, Georgia 1860-1890 by LeeAnn Whites
  38. The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War by Victoria Bynum
  39. When Sherman Marched North from the Sea: Resistance on the Confederate Home Front by Jacqueline Glass Campbell
  40. All the Daring of a Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies by Elizabeth D. Leonard
  41. They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook
  42. The Negro in the Civil War by Benjamin Quarles
  43. The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 by Dudley Taylor Cornish
  44. Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era by John David Smith
  45. Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War by Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland
  46. The Negro’s Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted during the War for the Union by James M. McPherson
  47. Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia by Ervin L. Jordan
  48. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and Their White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar
  49. The Private Civil War: Popular Thought during the Sectional Conflict by Randall C. Jimerson
  50. Liberty, Virtue, and Progress: Northerners and Their War for the Union by Earl J. Hess
  51. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War by James M. McPherson
  52. After Secession: Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism by Paul D. Escott
  53. Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850-1900 by Paul D. Escott
  54. Plain Folk in a Rich Man’s War: Class and Dissent in Confederate Georgia by David Williams, Teresa Crisp Williams, and David Carlson
  55. “Submitting to the ‘Shadow of Slavery’: The Secession Crisis and Civil War in Alabama’s Lawrence County” in Civil War History 44 (June 1998): 111-36 by Paul Horton
  56. “‘The Graver and Scandalous Evil Infected to Your People’: The Erosion of Confederate Loyalty in Floyd County, Virginia” in Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 108, no. 4 (December 2000): 393-434 by Rand Dotson
  57. Seasons of War: The Ordeal of a Confederate Community, 1861-1865 by Daniel E. Sutherland
  58. Ashe County’s Civil War: Community and Society in the Appalachian South by Martin Crawford
  59. Guarding Greensboro: A Confederate Company in the Making of a Southern Community by G. Ward Hubbs
  60. Blood Image: Turner Ashby in the Civil War and the Southern Mind by Paul Christopher Anderson
  61. All That Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South by Stephen W. Berry III
  62. The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion by Peter S. Carmichael
  63. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South by Bertram Wyatt-Brown
  64. Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina by Steven A. Channing
  65. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South by John Blassingame
  66. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 by Herbert Gutman
  67. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America by Sterling Stuckey
  68. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom by Lawrence W. Levine
  69. Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth Century South by Robert Korstad
  70. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power by Timothy Tyson
  71. Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars by Kristin L. Hoganson
  72. The Male Body at War: American Masculinity during World War II by Christina S. Jarvis
  73. What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War by Chandra Manning

Some of the books towards the end are not Civil War specific but apply in some ways to the study of Civil War soldiers. I plan to pare this list down in the near future and create a blog entry which serves as a bibliography of Civil War soldier studies.

“A ‘Vexed Question’: White Union Soldiers on Slavery and Race”
by Chandra Manning

Chandra Manning covers the views of White Union soldiers on slavery and race as the Civil War progressed. What follows is mostly a summary of her essay along with my thoughts and comments at the bottom of this section. All of the essays in the book will be covered in this manner. I encourage those who have read the book or who are familiar with the soldier studies literature to interact via the comments feature at the bottom of this entry.

Manning says the first Americans to tie emancipation to victory were Black Americans. Whites, including soldiers, did not necessarily view the eradication of slavery as necessary in order to win the war. Support for emancipation and racism toward Blacks were not mutually exclusive. Many Union soldiers entered the war against emancipation but changed their mind after seeing slavery up close. Manning argues against the commonly held belief that the Emancipation Proclamation caused a drop in Union soldiers’ morale, citing numerous letters and showing morale dropped at different times in the east and west. I found this point interesting and will touch on it again later. Separating slavery and race was easy at first, but as soldiers realized Blacks would have a place in postwar society if they were free, it grew increasingly difficult. Manning quotes from a letter and calls this attempt by soldiers and other Whites to separate slavery “the vexed question.” With their appearance in the ranks, Black soldiers challenged assumptions about racial inferiority. Continued war even allowed common White soldiers now thoroughly familiar with slavery to take what would have been considered radical racial positions prior to 1861. Some saw the horrors of war as punishment for the sin of slavery and took increasingly abolitionist views, believing that only freeing the slaves would end this punishment. Manning says 80% of soldiers voted for Lincoln and his uncompromisingly abolitionist platform and uses this result to support claims that Union soldiers increasingly supported emancipation as the war dragged on and as they became acquainted with the horrors of slavery. The fact that 80% of soldiers voted for Lincoln is true, but I have a question about this particular comment which I’ll cover below. As the Union got closer to victory, some racial epiphanies lapsed and Whites went back to old ways. Manning argues racial views were prone to backsliding after victory and helps explain failure of Reconstruction to achieve racial equality. I thought this was a good point and something I hadn’t necessarily thought about before.

I have read in numerous places about the plummet in morale of Union soldiers after the Emancipation Proclamation who were not eager to fight to end slavery. Manning has studied morale levels in both the East and West and notes that if the Emancipation Proclamation was a major cause of a morale drop, it would be seen across all Union armies. What she found instead is that morale levels tended to rise and fall due to events in the local areas of individual soldiers. Fredericksburg and the Mud March, for instance, caused morale in the Army of the Potomac to drop to all-time lows in December and January. Morale levels in the Army of the Tennessee, however, dropped a little later on, mostly as a result of continued failures to get at Vicksburg.

While 80% of soldiers did vote for Abraham Lincoln in late 1864, what percentage were voting for him to end slavery as their main (or even a) reason? Manning uses this result as evidence for many soldiers fully supporting emancipation as a war aim. I would be inclined to believe that keeping the Union whole and/or wanting to make sure my friends/neighbors/relatives did not die in vain would have been more important to most White Union soldiers than emancipation. Has anyone explored in depth the reasons soldiers gave for the way they voted in the 1864 election? If so, could readers point me in the direction of such a book (or article in a journal/magazine)?

Manning’s final comments are about how the backsliding of enlightened racial views as victory came into sight helped doom Reconstruction to failure. I assume this point is more than likely touched on in David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion.

“A Brother’s War?: Exploring Confederate Perceptions of the Enemy”
by Jason Phillips

Phillips’ theme is that a “Brothers’ War” was more of a postwar myth than reality, and he uses Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s Appomattox “salute” anecdote as a lead-in to his essay. He challenges this myth by studying Confederate soldiers’ views of the enemy during wartime. Confederate soldiers tended to view Northern soldiers as some mixture of inept & inferior and barbaric & evil, according to Phillips. He believes the sheer destructiveness of war made “brothers’ war” an absurd term. As the war progressed, Confederate soldiers’ views of Union soldiers shifted from inept toward barbaric, though both images coexisted throughout. In a lengthy side examination, Phillips shows how songs spread this image of barbarism, giving quite a few examples along the way. The author relates how northern soldiers were trying to deny the Southern soldier three pillars of manhood:

1. white female submission

2. land ownership

3. racial superiority

In addition, Union soldiers were also trying to deny the political rights of Southern soldiers. Most encounters between men of opposite sides were hostile, says Phillips, the odd anecdote of friendly exchanges notwithstanding. Atrocity stories grew in number and severity as the war moved into southern territory. Fears of rape of white women and miscegenation were widespread and reflected in these atrocity stories. Once black soldiers fought, Rebel soldiers became enraged at the implied parity. One word, “subjugation”, rolled into one all things southern soldiers feared most after surrender. Confederate perceptions of the enemy worsened as the war worsened. Total war and black troops hastened the views of Southerners toward Union troops as barbarians. Some of the factors causing this lasted long after Reconstruction.


And so ends the first portion of my look at Aaron Sheehan-Dean’s The View from the Ground. Be sure to check back next weekend for the middle three essays.

Part 1 – Part 2 (Coming Soon)

Special thanks goes to The University Press of Kentucky.

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