Saturday, July 14, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War

Most students of the Civil War learn early on that the vast majority of soldier deaths were due to illness and disease, rather than the combat actions on its many battlefields. However, Inglorious Passages reminds us that along with illnesses and diseases, a great number of men lost their lives in about as many different ways as one could imagine during the fours years of the conflict. 

Wartime has the unique and horrible ability to cast a long shadow of death far beyond intended belligerents on open fields and in earthworks. From even before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, but also throughout the four years of war, accidents occurred that took lives, such as drownings on troop transport ships, firearms mishaps in training camps, broken necks and backs from horse falls, railroad tragedies, and a plethora of other death dealing means. 

Wills located hundreds of examples of each of these tragic tales and more by combing through period newspapers, examining soldiers' letters and diaries, and searching through Union and Confederate army records. 

The Civil War created the atmosphere for many of these tragic deaths to occur. For example, had there been no war, one could argue that the hundreds of soldiers killed by falling trees, either by natural means of wind and storm or by human axes for shelter and fortifications, would have been greatly mitigated. Similarly, if there had been no war, the situations of accidental mishandling of firearms in camp that caused the deaths of more hundreds of men would also not have occurred. But the war did happen and these men did lose their lives in these ways. What was left was to do was for those fiends and families who lost loved ones in these diverse, sometimes "freak" manners to make sense of these tragedies. Most often those folks sought comfort by telling or believing that their soldier loved one died in the service of their country, and whether that was due to a railroad accident rather than in a military battlefield charge mattered little; their life was a sacrifice on the alter of liberty (whichever interpretation of that term, Union or Confederate, they chose). 

One quote Wills incorporates in the book sums up many Civil War soldiers' interpretation of the both intentional and accidental death and destruction of life the war brought when he wrote home "Father, I am sick of reading in the papers of 'the glory' of war. The truth is, there is no glory in it; Everything about it is simply horrible." 

We would do well to remind ourselves about the long shadow of war before entering into any conflict lightly. Wills helps us do that. This is an important book about the past, but it also is a warning to us in the present and the future. I highly recommend it.

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