Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Just Finished Reading - The War for the Common Soldier

It's always pleasing when a much anticipated book actually delivers. Peter S. Carmichael's The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies brings the scholarly spotlight back to focus on the men who served out on the firing line, the picket line, in camp, in the hospitals, in prisons, and sometimes on the lam.

In this book Carmichael contends that soldiers attempted to meet the demands of their military commitments by exercising a healthy does of pragmatism. Often found being stretched between the ideals and principles of mid-nineteenth century manhood (duty, honor, commitment, and sentimentalism) and the realities of soldiering (exhausting marches, inclement weather, bad food, and the sheer hell of battle) men attempted to find practical ways to cope.

To illustrate how men exercised pragmatism Carmichael incorporates a number of case studies taken from several soldiers' primary sources. While a few of these case studies come from published accounts known to well-read Civil War students, such as those of Alabamian Joshua Callaway and New Yorker Charles Biddlecom, most are probably more unfamiliar examples that the author expertly examines and deftly interprets to show the human side of soldiering. Included are a couple that offer African American soldiers' perspectives.

Upon enlistment, soldiers learned rather quickly that their old worlds, where perhaps they had an individual say and experienced a high level of liberty, had suddenly vanished. Now, in place of their previous civilian worlds, where consistency gave way to uncertainly and comforts gave way to torment, they had to learn how to balance life-ling principles and ideals with survival in order to maintain their mental and physical well being.

Of course, soldiers who came from diverse pre-war life experiences found different ways to pragmatically cope with soldier life. Just like us today, some people then were optimists and some people were pessimists. Some people were able to withstand tremendous amounts of stress and others broke with the first test. However, as Carmichael summarizes nicely in the book's epilogue: "Within this turbulent and often oppressive environment, soldiers came to see the necessity of being adaptive in thought and action. Quite simply, they became pragmatic. Pragmatism was not a word that soldiers used, let alone defined, but its presence was felt. Pragmatism assumed innumerable forms and permeated all aspects of military life, but it did not lead men on either side to disavow Christianity, reject ideological beliefs, abandon sentimentalism, or scrap their conceptions of history as a divinely ordained march toward progress." A good example is many Union soldiers' evolving views on slavery. Often after northern men who had little experience with slavery saw it in practice as Union armies penetrated the South, and saw that slavery provided a valuable labor supply to the Confederate army, they came to the understanding and conclusion that slavery had to be destroyed in order to defeat the rebellion.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter in the book is chapter seven, which looks at soldiers' use of war-time material culture relics and souvenirs as ways of identifying with their time in military service.

The War for the Common Soldier is the perfect blending of military and social history. It is also a timely book in that it not only helps us better understand how Civil War soldiers met the demands of what they were asked to do, but it also prompts us to think about the ways that our nation's current soldiers sacrifice their comforts for our greater good. I most highly recommend it.

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