Civil War Talk Radio: April 10, 2009

Air Date: 041009
Subject: What Made Some Men Stand and Some Men Run?
Book:  Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War
Guest: Dora L. Costa and Matthew E. Kahn

Summary: Dora L. Costa and Matthew E. Kahn discuss what made some men stand in the line of battle while others ran away.

Brett’s Summary: Gerry had not one but two guests in this episode, something he hasn’t done much of in his years as the host of Civil War Talk Radio.  Both authors are economists, something I found interesting considering the subject matter of their book.  They look at a random sample of Union Civil War soldiers from a social science viewpoint.

Professor Costa talked about the database they used, and which she helped to create, containing 36,000 White Union soldiers and 6,000 Black Union soldiers and their wartime records which link then to their pension and census records.  They soon realized that a company of men in the Civil War was very much a small community, a small social network, which allowed them to observe how social networks affect individual behavior.

They looked at why men deserted, and what things caused people to desert specifically.  One striking thing they found was that the more diverse your company was in things such as age, birthplace, occupation, nationality, etc., the more likely they were to desert, or in their terminology, “to be bad citizens.”

Gerry asked the authors how they define desertion in their study, pointing out that they refer to desertion as a “bad thing” in their study.  The authors defined desertions as those who were convicted of desertion.  Thus they do differentiate between those who had gone AWOL and came back versus those who deserted.  The authors were impressed that only 9% of Union soldiers deserted, which was to them an extremely low number considering desertion was probably the best chance for self-preservation.  Gerry asked a lot of probing questions about the authors’ methodology, especially questioning how they measured political ideology.

Gerry again stressed that Costa’s database is an empirical study of Civil War soldiers.  Social cohesion caused men to be less likely to desert and more likely to survive in prison camps if they were captured in a group.  The authors summarized and said “the better you know people the better off you are” and stressed the importance of social capital.  The study randomly chose a company from various regiments, so the book and the study looks at companies rather than regiments.

As the hour ended, Gerry challenged the authors’ statement that the soldiers of the Confederacy would show similar results.  Gerry mentioned the worldviews of Northern and Southern soldiers was quite different, pointing out his conversation with Nina Silber in last week’s episode of Civil War Talk Radio.  And at the very end, Gerry asked about the phrase “we estimate a probit model.”  Matthew Kahn explained this decidedly “economist’s term” to close out the program this week.

As Gerry mentioned in the course of the show, this is a very different Civil War book than what you typically see on the bookshelves.  I inferred from Gerry’s comments that he liked the book enough to specifically invite these guests onto the show, something which doesn’t always happen.  For that reason alone, I’m intrigued.  The book is now on my “to buy” list if not yet on my “to read” list.

Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.

In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.

Check out more summaries of Civil War Talk Radio at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog.

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