Sunday, March 18, 2012

Just Finished Reading

What? A book read in a day? Yep, this book was that good. O.K., it was only 180 pages or so of text, so it was not all that difficult, but again, it was hard to put down.

Since the late 1980s numerous studies on the soldiers of the Union and Confederate armies have been published and have seemingly covered just about every topic one could imagine. But, until this book, a real close look at the idea of honor and manhood in the Union army had not been completed. Traditionally, studies on honor have dealt with Southerners, but as Lorien Foote contends and proves in The Gentlemen and the Roughs, honor meant a great deal to many of those men who served from the North too.

Foote made extensive use of regimental order books and courts-martial records as her basis of evidence. These documents, largely overlooked by previous researchers and historians, provided her with numerous cases where individual soldiers' (both enlisted men and officers) idea's of honor were tested and played out...many to deadly effect.

Foote explains that Northern ideals of honor included many levels. For some men, especially those from the upper levels of society - the gentlemen - honor was obtained by being self controlled. These men believed that those of like status would hold them in high esteem if they maintained a level of coolness in heated exchanges in camp and dire situations in combat. This often played out on the battlefield where officers were expected to lead their men in their fights, seemingly oblivious to the dangers around them. But, the Union army was not only composed of gentlemen; it had its fair share of "roughs" as well. These men, usually poor urban factory workers and rural farm laborers, brought a different idea of honor to their armies. These men felt that manhood and honor was expressed in physical prowess. They fought in camp to prove their manliness and spoke back to officers when they felt their honor had been offended. Obviously, this disregard for hierarchy happened quite often in a system that threw men from diverse backgrounds into situations that demanded deference to a military superior from those unused to giving to giving any deference. A section of the book on page 108 sums up this idea nicely. "Northern society contained too much socioeconomic diversity for a standard of honor to be widely shared across a larger community as was the case in the south. All men did not value honor in the first place; among those who did, there were different standards of worth and different methods to prove worth to one's peers."

I was pleased to find that the author also explored honor and manhood as it was applied in U.S.C.T. units as well. Here, the examination process for officers, designed to select the best men to lead these soldiers, often did not weed out racism as well as was hoped. Officers' racial assumptions and prejudices sometimes changed how they handled black troops, much as ethnic and class stereotypes affected relations between officers and men in all-white units. Punishments for military offenses that former slaves thought resembled their past lives were often resisted, which many times led to even greater difficulties between officers and men.

This is a wonderful book that is well researched and easy to read. On scale of 1 to 5, I give The Gentlemen and the Roughs a 5.

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